Friday, January 21, 2011

Dhobi Ghat (2011): In Search of Meaning

Hindi cinema is changing at a rapid pace. More and more new filmmakers with promise are entering the arena. Each has his/her own distinct style and all have their specific influences. Some have been highly successful, others not quite so much. However, all show promise and make you look forward to their movies. The latest entrant in this arena is Kiran Rao. However, I wish I could be as enthusiastic about her debut film.

The stories: Shai (Monica Dogra) is an investment banker with a penchant for photography. She meets Arun (Aamir Khan), a lonely painter with Mumbai as his muse and makes a connection. She also meets Munna a.k.a. Sohaib (Prateik), a dhobi who serves both, Arun and Shai and quickly becomes friends with him. He aspires to be an actor someday. In the meanwhile, Arun uncovers some video tapes in his new house belonging to the previous owner, Yasmin (Kriti Malhotra) and immediately finds inspiration in her stories. Art imitates life and we see these lives connect with each other in the city that is Mumbai.

In terms of storytelling, the influence of Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu (Amorres Perros, 21 Grams, Babel) is quite evident in Kiran Rao’s style. However, while she seems remarkably comfortable with the methods of the acclaimed filmmaker, meaning remains elusive. Her film never amounts to more than the sum of its parts. While her characters are real and fully realised, their interactions with each other are far too fleeting; too momentary, too punctuated and vague to make a real connection with or provide a larger meaning to the viewer. If only  Kiran Rao, the writer, had strengthened these connections and provide a larger context, then we would be looking at a masterpiece. None of the stories are given a clear or satisfactory conclusion. Without this, it is little more than scattered stories; interesting individually but pointless as a whole. The film is subtle to a fault. Further, for a film that attempts to be realistic, the relationship between two key protagonists of the film (Munna and Shai) is anything but real. It is hard to believe that an affluent investment banker could so easily forge a friendship with a dhobi, that too, without a hint of opposition or distaste from her posh friends and family.

Nevetheless, there are three factors that work in favour of the film. First, it is a loving portrait of the city that is Mumbai. Never has the city been captured on camera more beautifully; from the posh and modern Marine Drive and Walkeshwar to the seedier parts of Mohammed Ali Road and Grant Road. It is a gorgeous, intelligent and whole-hearted tribute to the older parts of the city, bursting with history, culture and nostalgia. The beauty is in the details, and there are plenty. It presents Mumbai with all its contradictions: the freedom and the claustrophobia, the triumphs and the frustrations, the ostentatious and the pretentious, the beautiful and the disgusting.

The second thing that works greatly in favour of the film is the background score of Gustavo Santaolalla (Brokeback Mountain, Motorcycle Diaries, Babel). Interspersed with some beautiful Hindustani classical music, it provides some much needed depth to the otherwise sparse screenplay and sets the tone of the film perfectly in several places. Its minimalism (a key feature of the maestro’s work generally) lends volumes more than the characters do.

The final point is the performance of Prateik. The man gives a career-making performance as Munna. He effortlessly delivers a nuanced, layered performance as the sweet, innocent and charming lad toughened by his harsh realities and steals the thunder from all of his co-stars. Although his character is not very well developed, it is the bravura performance of this young actor that breathes life into the film. He is the underdog and you can’t help but root for him. Another performance that remains with the viewer is that of Kriti Malhotra as Yasmin. Easily the most well sketched character in the enterprise, she draws you into her little world and anchors the film in meaning.

Ultimately, Dhobi Ghat is something worth seeing, but not celebrating. It is remarkable, but not memorable. It has more in common with the flawed Babel than with Amorres Perros. Rao has a fresh voice, but she's not sure of what she wants to say. Her film is good, but lacks the emotional depth and is too vague; too scattered to be considered great.

Rating: 3/5

Monday, January 10, 2011

No One Killed Jessica (2011): A Qualified Success

It was 1999. There was an insurgency in Kargil; people were preparing for the new millennium; India had gone nuclear a year earlier; internet was still in its infancy and the world was at the footsteps of the dot com boom, and bust. In this year, Jessica Lall, a little known aspiring model and bartender, was shot dead by a cabinet minister's son when she refused to serve him a drink at a popular Delhi nightclub. There were 300 witnesses, but only 7 admitted to have been there. These included the owner of the club, her daughter, an aspiring model and a cleaner. As Jessica’s sister, Sabrina struggled to secure justice for her sister, she realised that this was going to be an uphill task as she faced corruption, nepotism and naked display of power. It was supposed to be an “open and shut” case. As the trial court judgment came out, the world was shocked and the media joined Sabrina to take on the system.

This is the tale that is depicted in No One Killed Jessica. There are several films which have had a similar plot Countless masala movies come to mind involving corrupt policemen, politicians and judiciary. The only difference here is that this is not just a story; this is a true story. The murder happened; justice was denied; a happy and well knit family was destroyed and 10 years of their life were wasted in the quest for justice. Therein lies the strength of the film. You identify with the events; in a small way, you may even have been a part of it.

In terms of storytelling, the director uses the same technique as The Social Network. This is not a documentary, or even a docu-drama. It emphasises on gripping storytelling rather than slavishly following facts and suitably fictionalises characters and plot points for the sake of entertainment. Nevertheless, it follows the facts where they matter. The recreation of the sequence of events, particularly the murder itself, is crafted in such meticulous detail that it has a chilling effect on the viewer. It even uses the contemporary events that shaped the public opinion on the case, like the release of Rang De Basanti. Meera (Rani Mukerjee) is an amalgamation of a legion of reporters who worked tirelessly on the issue. Sabrina (Vidya Balan) is depicted as a determined but helpless sister whose entire life is destabilized with that one bullet. Doing so helps give the film a tight narrative and greater dramatic force as we see the two suitably contrasted women (battle against the system. The writers canonize Jessica (played by Myra) thereby elevating her from an ordinary victim to an embodiment of the modern, progressive, free thinking woman. The script is excellent and packs a strong emotional punch as it puts together 7 years of facts into a 140 minute runtime. The film is furiously paced, bursting at its seams with anger, irony, sarcasm and earnestness. It has resonance and relief in equal measure.

However, it falls short of perfection by a considerable margin. There are some very serious problems in the writing. First, the courtroom sequences leave a lot to be desired. In a film that strives to be authentic, the flaky way in which the courtroom sequences are depicted is quite off putting. There are simple things that the film gets wrong. For example, one of the witnesses claims that he cannot speak Hindi. However, he seems to understand everything the investigating cop and the prosecution lawyer say in Hindi and no one points it out. Second, while the dialogues are refreshingly peppered with expletives and obscenities, there are several points where it comes across as forced, awkward and therefore, fake. I know it’s rare that one gets to here such language on screen, but must it be used so unnecessarily? The dialogues are also plagued with clich├ęs at some points which have no place in a film like this. Particularly painful, jarring and even borderline offensive, is the killer's mother who is extremely filmy and annoying.

Thankfully, the execution by Raj Kumar Gupta is solid and helps overcome some of these flaws. The director takes giant strides as a storyteller from his first outing, Aamir. The music and background score by Amit Trivedi are fantastic and provide additional depth and meaning to the proceedings at appropriate points. The one song that stays with you though is, of course, "Dilli" which fits the film's angry tone perfectly. The production design is, by and large, authentic and the cinematography is stunning in places.

The performances are littered all across the spectrum. Vidya Balan is brilliant as the shy and closeted Sabrina who is suddenly thrust into the spotlight after her sister is murdered. She is suitably restrained and conveys far more through her eyes than her words. It would not be incorrect to say that the film belongs to her. Rani Mukerjee is good but the whole aggressive, ambitious, foul mouthed act would be better suited for a good character actor. However, the rest of the cast is plagued with theatricality. Moreover, the performances by the actors playing Jessica’s mother, the club owner and Vikram Jaisingh leave a lot to be desired. Their performances are fake, over the top and mar the dramatic impact of the film unnecessarily.

Ultimately, Indian cinema still has a lot to learn about making fact-based films, if for no other reason, then just because so few are made. However, No One Killed Jessica is certainly a step in the right direction. It is well researched, responsible, tightly scripted and brilliantly executed. It has its flaws which keep it from joining the likes of Black Friday, The Social Network and All The President’s Men. Nevertheless, it is gripping cinema and more than worth the price of admission.

Rating 3.5/5