Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Best 50 Films of the Decade: Part II

40. Parineeta: Very rarely is a film carried through entirely by one powerful performance and that too of a new comer. “Parineeta” was one such rarity. Vidya Balan overshadowed seasoned actors like Saif Ali Khan and Sanjay Dutt to give the performance of a lifetime as Lalita. Shantanu Moitra gave his best score till date and Pradeep Sarkar’s eye for period and cultural detail and the delicate portrayal of the social differences at the time made “Parineeta” almost wonderful. The hackneyed climax was however, a real letdown and almost derailed the entire movie. The director’s attempt at the metaphorical breaking of the walls became a tad too literal and absurd.

39. Firaaq: Continuing in the vein of debuts, Nandita Das made her directorial debut with “Firaaq” in 2009. An intertwining tale of various lives colliding in the aftermath of the Gujarat riots and featuring an excellent ensemble performance from an army of seasoned actors, the film was well directed for a first timer. Das deserves kudos for selecting such a heavy subject for her debut vehicle and actually managing to make some sense out of the carnage that occured. It is also a delight to watch actors like Deepti Naval and Paresh Rawal in such form.

38. 3 Deewarein: A powerful work by Nagesh Kukunoor, 3 Deewarein was a powerful film which featured some terrific performances by the principal actors. The story is of 3 jail inmates on death row and a documentary filmmaker dealing with an abusive husband and a painful past who comes to the jail to film their last days. The movie reminded me a lot of Shawshank Redemption though that’s not to say that it was similar. It was deep, intense and featured believable characters. Watch it for Juhi Chawla who proves that she can do more than mere comedy and melodrama.

37. The Legend of Bhagat Singh: Certainly the best biography to be made in this decade, this little gem had everything right. Right from the impeccable casting and the high production values to the lilting score of A.R. Rahman, Rajkumar Santoshi created the definitive biography of Bhagat Singh’s life. Perhaps its greatest strength was an army of supporting characters that were not only cast appropriately but also fleshed out in great detail to create a great ensemble performance. The dialogues were fiery and the execution was just right. Unfortunately, despite all this, the movie sank due to two other movies on the same subject released around the same time.

36. Makdee: Vishal Bharadwaj’s directorial debut may have been his weakest film. But that is only testimonial to the brilliance he has achieved in his other films. Makdee was a lovely children’s tale featuring exceptional performances by Shweta Prasad and Shabana Azmi. It was believable, funny and made a strong message for children and adults alike. A simple tale told simply, Makdee is the best children’s tale to make it to the silver screen in the decade.

35. Zubeidaa: Shyam Benegal’s only decent film from the 2000s, “Zubeidaa” was an outstanding period piece that was authentic in its look and soul. Featuring some lovely performances by Rekha, Karishma Kapoor and Surekha Sikri Rage and a hauntingly melancholic score by A.R. Rahman, the film was technically flawless and delicate in its treatment of the tale of the doomed actress. I loved the way in which it portrayed royalty in all its elegance and claustrophobia. Long after the movie was over, I could hear the quivering voice of Lata Mangeshkar singing “So gaye hain, Dil ke afsane, Koi to aata, Phir se kabhi inko jagaane.”

34. Dor: Nagesh Kukunoor’s most mature work, “Dor” was a beautifully shot film about girl power which rested on the powerhouse performances of the two leading ladies: Ayesha Takia and Gul Panag. At the same time, Shreyas Talpade provides the humorous interludes and veterans like Girish Karnad, Pratiksha Lonkar and Uttara Bhavkar provide able support. Salim-Sulaiman’s score was as earthy as it was haunting especially “Yeh Hausla,” “Kesariya Balam” and “Imaan Ka Asar.” As we see the transformation of Meera (Ayesha Takia) from the happily subjugated wife and daughter in law to the emancipated independent woman is endearing and heartwarming. The performances, perfect pacing and the powerful dialogues make the film a highly memorable movie of the decade.

33. Mughal-e-Azam: Now this may be considered an odd entry by many. Originally released in 1960, K. Asif’s labour of love took over sixteen years in making and faced many hurdles. With an astronomical budget of INR 1.5 crores, the movie remains India’s grandest epic. The sheer scale on which the production was mounted (perhaps best seen in the legendary “Pyar Kiya Toh Darna Kya” and the 30 minute climax shot when Indian moviegoers got the first real taste of Technicolor in cinema) still evokes awe amongst most. However, K. Asif’s dream of releasing the entire film in colour remained unfulfilled at the time. In 2007, however, with an additional budget of Rs. 9 crore, the movie was digitally remastered and each frame was coloured using the latest technology. The result was an epic re-release of the opus which made a whole new generation watch and love the movie all over again. Coloured with great love and care, the movie was an absolutely magical experience. Each frame had the richness and sheen of a beautiful portrait and the re-release made the movie one of the most memorable of the decade.

32. Oye Lucky, Lucky Oye: The follow up to the awesome “Khosla ka Ghosla,” Dibakar Banerjee managed to deliver a memorable film yet again in “Oye Lucky, Lucky Oye.” What was most memorable was the performance of the actor who played the younger version of the crook. The movie showed an aspect of Dilli never seen before. Instead of showing the usual upper middle/rich class of society which Yash Chopra specialised in, Dibakar Banerjee takes us through the little gullies and mohalas of Delhi and the people that live there. Alternately hilarious and interesting, it was a worthy, albeit lesser follow up to the superb “Khosla ka Ghosla”.

31. Rang De Basanti: Here is another film where the end was its undoing. This movie was remarkable for the fact that it really sparked a minor revolution among the media and the youth, where, for a few months, people took the problems of society more seriously. The convergence of parallel tales of freedom fighters and today’s apathetic youth was powerful and mostly relevant. However, the convoluted conclusion was the prime culprit in making the movie less than classic. Nevertheless, the flavours of North India were dished out with all the ghee and makhan characteristic of the area. The music of A.R. Rahman ranged from the earthy “Rang De Basanti” to the soulful “Tu Bin Bataaye” and the haunting “Khoon Chala” and “Luka Chhupi.” It had a distinct sound which continues to appeal to many even today, 2 years later. It was, ultimately, a hatke experience that oversimplified to the point of absurdity.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Best 50 Films of the Decade: Part 1

As the curtain is drawn on the first decade of the new millenium, I began to ponder over the gone by in terms of the movies that came and went. This was the decade that saw, I believe changed the fundamentals of Bollywood. The rise of the multiplex culture provided a new exclusive urban audience that demanded a different style of cinema. As a result a number of different movies and subjects that wouldn't have worked 15 years back suddenly found a market for themselves. As a result of this, there was a lot of promising new talent and technique that found its way to mainstream audiences and made the decade memorable. This was the decade to be in for an Anurag Kashyap or a Vishal Bharadwaj. This and the fact that I still have to come across any decent list of the best Hindi movies online inspired me to create a list of the 50 best movies of the decade. Hindi, English, multilingual and bi-lingual films have been considered so long as they are made in Bollywood. The entry is split in five parts and

50. Namastey London: An unexpectedly quirky comedy, this surprise hit remake of the classic “Purab aur Paschim” was authentic, fun and funny for most part. It featured an refreshing and energetic performance from Akshay Kumar (before he got typecast in “Welcome” type roles) and gave Katrina Kaif a chance to use her Angrez accent to actually add authenticity to her character. The music was an eyesore thanks to the involvement of aapro Himesh. However, the movie was earthy, breezy and a perfect outing on any given Sunday.

49. Mithya: A black comedy to the core, Mithya was as entertaining as it was sad. Featuring an impeccable performance from Ranbir Shorey, the movie was extremely funny for the most part. Unfortunately, it was also a thin storyline stretched too long, like butter spread overdecade too much bread. However, solid dialogues, performances and a few well placed plot twists made the film a highly entertaining experience, a rarity in Indian dark comedies.

48. Johnny Gaddar: Had it not been for Neil Nitin Mukesh’s wooden performance, Johnny Gaddar would probably have featured much higher in the list. The movie is expertly crafted by Sriram Raghavan who makes a story that is at once a classical Western thriller and also postmodern tribute to the masala films of 1970s. With a plethora of superb supporting performances, the only problem with the movie is the fact that its leading man is far from convincing. Nevertheless, the confident direction and supporting performances make it a memorable film.

47. Parzania: A powerful film based on a true story with superb performances by Naseeruddin Shah and Sarika. A boy went missing during the Gujarat riots because of simply his name and his family is left behind to pick up the pieces. This could be a story of hundreds of families in Gujarat today. The movie was lacked the typical happy ending and instead gave us a disconcerting account of the atrocities that were committed and the chilling role that the government played in the carnage.

46. Om Shanti Om: An absolutely entertaining reincarnation tale, the movie was a classic big budget Hindi movie. However, what made it interesting is that it drew inspiration from and made references to a plethora of movies ranging from the usual Karz and Madhumati to Gone with the Wind, Phantom of the Opera and many more. A stunning comeback for Arjun Rampal as the menacing Mukesh Mehra, it also gave us the dewy eyed Deepika Padukone. At the same time, it was a celebration of the Hindi film industry with all its stars and its larger than life appeal. Needless to say, it proved to be one of the highest grosser of all time. 46.

45. A Wednesday: This sleeper hit, a phenomenon rarely witnessed on this side of the world, was timely and relevant in its subject matter. Unlike most terrorism films, it put the common man at the centre stage rather than the terrorists or the government. The dialogues were sharp, biting and reflective of the popular sentiment on the matter. The performances of veteran actors Anupam Kher and Naseeruddin Shah as well as Jimmy Shergill and Aamir Bashir were absolutely fantastic. While unrealistic, the plot achieved its objective in delivering an excellent thriller that was thought-provoking without being jingoistic.

44. Kabul Express: This was perhaps one of the most underrated films of this decade as it was a refreshing departure from anything portrayed on the Indian screen before. Shot on the tough landscape of war-torn Afghanistan, the film was technically flawless and had a tight screenplay. The story was entirely original and haunting in its implications, a tale hard to dismiss offhand given the director’s extensive experience with the country. At the same time, it was an entertaining road movie with the requisite humour, thrills and a great background score.

43. Morning Raga: Directed by celebrated theatre personality, Mahesh Dattani, the movie was a poignant and emotionally resonant tale of three people haunted by the past finding redemption in their love for music. The movie was interesting as it introduced Carnatic music to a wider audience (including myself) and featured some lovely fusion versions of “Thaaye Yashodha” and “Mahaganapatim.” It also featured a haunting performance by the always bankable Shabana Azmi. A lovely outing because it was fresh, metaphorical and pure.

42. Cheeni Kum: The tale of love between a 64 year old chef and a 34 year old woman; sounds familiar? Not really. And that was the USP of this film. Absolutely wonderfully enacted by Amitabh Bachchan and Tabu in title roles, the film was very well written in places and always interesting. The ideas of ageing, death and social stereotypes were dealt with the required delicateness and care. The sub-plot about the little kid may be slightly off-putting for some. However, the success of Cheeni Kum reflected the changing sensibilities of the moviegoer. No longer were subjects taboo (as had been the case for movies like “Lamhe”).

41. Being Cyrus: Bollywood has always been weak on thrillers, primarily due to a lack of originality. “Being Cyrus” was one of those rare thrillers that actually worked wonderfully. Darkly comic and macabre, the tale of Cyrus Mistry and his days with the Sethna family at their house in Panchgani is twisted and allows us a view of the deep recesses of characters’ psyches. It reminded me of Tolstoy’s saying that each unhappy family is unhappy in its own unique way. As we are exposed to the Sethna family’s secrets, we laugh, we gasp and in the end, are left with a sense of wonder and melancholy.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Avatar: The Motion Picture Event

I had been reading up on "Avatar" ever since the first images surfaced at Comic Con 2009. James Cameron is one of my favourite film makers and I looked forward to the film with immense anticipation. For the first time in 5 years, I actually bothered to get the tickets for an English movie in advance (the last being "Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King"). I had a gut feeling that this would be to Cameron what "Star Wars" was for Lucas. And I was right! For me, the movie not only lived up to the hype but surpassed it. Naysayers be damned! James Cameron is still the King of the World.

The first thing that struck me about "Avatar" was its visuals. Fifteen minutes into the movie, I was filled with that same childlike wonder that I felt at the age of 5 as I sat and saw "Jurassic Park." "Avatar" draws you into a new world and provides you a visual feast never witnessed on the screen before. The colour palate is beautiful with a wide range of primary and fluorescent colours. Every aspect of Pandora (the world of the Na'vi) is conceived with great imagination and an eye for detail. The plants, animals, birds, creatures have been conceived in such detail that it is hard not to be in awe of it. The Na'vi are also created with care and given a language, history, culture that is well thought out, highly imaginative and at its core, believable. They are beautiful and hell, even sexy. Their world is one where the spiritual and the biological combine and symbiosis is the basis for their existence. Only James Cameron could pull off something on this scale. He takes his time to introduce us to this world and its inhabitants, get involved and ultimately care for them and their fate.

While the first half is awe-inspiring, the second half is like a punch that knocks the wind out of you. Unlike a District 9 which started with a highly interesting premise but finally degenerated into mindless action, the action sequences of "Avatar" are emotionally gut-wrenching. That is because by now, like the main character of the film, I (and the people around me in the theatre) had picked my side, decided that I cared and despite all cliches, I gasped, choked up and cheered bang on cue at all the right moments. It's a tried and tested tale but one told so convincingly and with such passion, that you can't help but buy into it.

What I love the most about James Cameron movies is that he doesn't sit around and wait for a sequel. He puts together everything he wants to say in one movie. This is also probably why his (rare) sequels are all the more stunning. At a run time of nearly 3 hours, there was only once I checked my watch and that too to see how much more time I had to experience this movie. Cameron proves with "Avatar" that his imagination really knows no bounds. Unlike other great epic movies like "Lord of the Rings" trilogy which had a brilliant literary base, "Avatar" is an absolutely original creation and that makes the work all the more admirable.

With "Avatar" Cameron reinforces the fact that he is the only person in Hollywood who can consistently take obscene amounts of money and churn out classics. Lets look at his repertoire: The Abyss ($70 million, obscene for 1989), Terminator 2: Judgment Day (the first movie with a $100 million budget), True Lies ($100 mil), Titanic ($200 mil) and now Avatar ($250 mil). He plays only in high stakes and delivers the required value in both monetary and aesthetic terms.

At the same time, I think what makes "Avatar" special over all his previous movies is that it is not only ridiculously entertaining but also has a very interesting subtext. The movie can be seen as an allegory for many things: it's pro nature, anti war and is an excellent representation of the process of othering. The complex subtext and the stunning scale of production make second viewings practically mandatory (I intend to revisit the movie next week!).

Technically, the film is flawless. The cinematography, the editing, sound work and visual effects produce a feast for the senses. Just when I thought that special FX teams in Hollywood had traded their sense of imagination for a quick buck (see 2012 and you will know what I mean), this little gem came along. The music of James Horner also deserves a special mention. This is certainly his best background score with "Titanic," "Braveheart" and "Troy." The impact of each sequence is heightened by his compositions. Come Oscar season, "Avatar" may just sweep all the technical awards.

On a final note, nothing of what I have just said can adequately prepare you for what you will see. I recently wrote about the Hollywood practice to churn out big budget bullshit and sell it through effective marketing. "Avatar" is a rare exception to that. For 3 hours, I was a five year old kid again: simultaneously frightened and awed. "Avatar" is the epic film you have been waiting for. It is the motion picture event of the year and more than makes up for the 12 years Mr. Cameron took to make this film. Movies like these are a good reminder why I fell in love with cinema in the first place.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

“LGBT movies:” On nomenclatures and other nonsense

Warning: Marginal Spoilers

As a movie lover, I watch all kinds of movies. In more recent years, particularly after Brokeback Mountain, I have seen and enjoyed a number of movies which have gay themes running through them. I honestly find it increasingly difficult to accept that the recognition of gay/bi/transgender themed movies as a distinct category of “LGBT films” is really warranted. I mean, a romantic comedy is still just that whether it involves straight or gay people as protagonists. Sure, movies are a powerful tool through which gay themes can be mainstreamed and be given greater acceptance in society. But I think by distinguishing the movies now as a distinct genre is to remove such themes from the mainstream and increase typecasting.

A good example of this I thought was “Latter Days.” Apart from the fact that the protagonists were gay, the movie was a standard romantic comedy. Man makes bet with friends he will sleep with any person they pick, meets that person, falls in love and after some clich├ęd trials and tribulations, they live happily ever after. I could name dozens of romantic comedies with a similar plot line. The only thing added to the mix is the whole sub plot of one of the protagonists being Mormon allowing the movie to go on a tangent and make political statements about how being homosexual is not immoral in anyway and belts out the whole liberal society song.

That brings me to another issue with most of these movies. They try to make political statements without taking away from the “masala” elements of the movie. There is the romance, drama and comic moments and at the same time, there is a political message sought to be put across no matter what. The result is a number of muddled movies that sit uncomfortably on the fence. They try to be entertaining and enlightening but end up being neither. This is, however, not to say that there haven’t been great gay themed movies which have made some strong and powerful political statements. “Milk” is the most recent and perhaps the best example of this. The story of Harvey Milk is one that empowers not only homosexuals but almost every marginalised community in society and Gus Van Sant prioritised the politics and had a very clear vision of the movie he wanted to present to the audiences. Another lesser known, but nevertheless powerful movie I saw and loved was the HBO film “The Laramie Project” which was based on the play by the same name. Based on hundreds of interviews, the film was a docudrama on the aftermath of the Matthew Shephard murder in 1998 and had some powerful performances by the cast including Christine Ricci and Laura Linney.

Coming back to the fiction, an obsession with gay themed movies is the idea of coming out of the closet. The concept has been done to death and continues to be explored in a lot of movies. “Latter Days,” “Shelter” and many others fall in this category. The problem is that it is rarely done in an interesting or unique manner. A rare exception to this is the movie “Beautiful Thing” which is an excellent coming of age film which deals with teen sexual realisation in the most beautiful manner. Armed with some stunning performances by a cast of mostly teens, it approached the issue with great sensitivity and care. Some of the crucial scenes in the movie have been beautifully written and executed. Moreover, it avoids unnecessary political speech and refrains from type casting teen protagonists and addresses issues like peer pressure just like any other good teen movie. And I mean that in the best way possible.

However, there is often another problem with such movies and even “Beautiful Thing” falls prey to that. It presumes that coming out of the closet is the only thing that matters and everything is fine after that. No doubt coming out of the closet is often the most difficult part. However, there is more to life than that and by failing to realise that, even the most realistic movies like “Beautiful Thing” are reduced to mere fables: good fables but fables nevertheless. It reduces the protagonists to one-dimensional characters who will eventually grow up, become more mature and complicated and look back at their former selves with immense amusement. Very rarely do movies deal with what happens after or the ordinary lives of homosexuals. That way, often television offers interesting counter examples in shows like “Skins” and more recently, “Glee” in which the lives of teen homosexuals have been dealt with greater sensitivity and care. A good movie I thought was “Transamerica” that explored the idea of family for a man who is in the middle of the process of becoming a woman. It featured some fabulous performances by Felicity Huffman and Kevin Zegers and dealt with alternate sexualities beyond merely coming out of the closet. Another good example I thought was “The Object of My Affection” that was a romantic comedy that explored some interesting ideas of love, family and friendship. Although the movie itself could’ve been scripted better, there was no denying the fact that the plot was refreshingly different and refrained from stereotyping homosexuals. In fact, I think its ending was one of the most well thought out endings I have seen. If only the movie had been scripted better especially when dealing with its supporting characters!

Speaking of romances, although the movie is regarded as a landmark by some in gay themed movies, I personally thought “Brokeback Mountain” was a beautifully crafted bore. I loved the short story by Annie Proulx. However, the movie, while beautiful to look at, well acted and with a beautiful background score courtesy Gustavo Santaolalla, was dull, tedious and overlong. Moreover, I didn’t care much about the characters till the very end unlike the short story which had me involved from start to end. The last half hour of the movie was stunning but it was too little, too late I thought. As regards sexualities, I thought "Cabaret" as a film dealt with alternate sexualities, their complexities, the prevalence of sexual decadence and the place of love in a time of moral anarchy spectacularly well.

A refreshing movie with strong gay themes was yet another work of Gus Van Sant, “My Own Private Idaho.” An audacious movie, this loose reworking of Shakespeare’s “Henry IV” featured, in my opinion, one of the most interesting characters ever in the form of River Phoenix’s Mike Waters. The character is quiet, gay and narcoleptic. He is an astonishing representation of the human need for love and care. His love for Scott (Keanu Reaves) is unrequited, undoubtable and ultimately, unfulfilled. Sexual orientation is central to his character and yet, underplayed to perfection. Scott, on the other hand, is interesting for different reasons. He is daring in his rebellion, loves Mike but is straight, selfish and ultimately belongs to another world. The interplay between these characters and between the real and the abstract is what makes “My Own Private Idaho” an excellent film. It defies categorisation.

Coming back to my main point, the classification of certain movies as “LGBT movies” is unwarranted and sometimes, unfair. It reinforces, I think the notion that gays/bisexuals/transgender people are somehow different and a fringe group in society. It also limits often the way in which such themes are explored in films. They get caught up in stereotypes and muddled political talk. The tag also often drives mainstream audiences away which is unfair for good movies like “Beautiful Thing” and others which deserve to be watched. The good films that I have discussed above are good because they are well made. They take a daring subject matter and do complete justice to it. That is what finally matters and should matter.