Sunday, February 22, 2009

Dev-da the bewda

It is rarely the occasion that everything fits well enough in a movie, that one has to actually sit and dig through fuzzed memories to find out what didn't fit. Dev.D does this. Now, it's definitely not a great movie - competition for that apellation requires that one can actually sit through the movie twice - but Dev.D is by far the best movie out of Bollywood so far this year. Given past standards, that makes it likely the best movie that escapes from there this year.

What can you say about a Bollywood movie that begins with the hero asking the heroine if she touches herself? That it is made by one of the most avant-garde directors of the industry, that it stars two leading ladies who are so good one is left wondering if this is one of their first movies, that the movie is psychedelic enough to be compared to our own cinematic equivalent of “The Wall”.

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There's an interesting story about how censorship in Sweden was changed due to work by Bergman of the Svensk BlondskindustriFilmindustri, who is one of the few non-cricketing impersonalities to have a semipermanent shrine on this blog. Sadly, it turns out this is partially untrue (500-9 might be relevant to some nsfw google-fu here). One can only hope that Dev.D proves to do something similar in this country. Most of the requisite elements are there.

As the jobless readers of this blog would have realized by now we are talking about DevD. Directed by Anurag Kashyap and staring Abhay Deol (who is a personal favorite HTPL notwithstanding) in a role that is tailor made for him (the credits read “Concept – Abhay Deol”), DevD is “loosely” inspired (re-interpreted is probably a better word) by the Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay book. DevD is the story of Dev’s life, his successes and failures in falling in love. It is also the story of Paro Dev’s childhood sweetheart and Chanda rendered brilliantly by Kalki Koechlin. In the inspired version the notable differences occur in why Dev and Paro cannot get married and the reasons Chanda is forced to turn to prostitution (a college going one by day at that). There are also pointers to the BMW case, the DPS MMS leak amongst other real life incidents.

Anurag Kashyap, apparently with help from the eponymous lead actor, came up with the script and direction for this movie. Now, functional illiteracy prevents me from reading SCC's দেবদাস, and a pact of mutual non-aggression between the shreds of common sense and insanity serves as an effective deterrent from watching any of the multiple prior efforts. Under the distinct and unheard-of handicap of judging a movie purely on its own performance, let's see why you may want to watch this movie in a theater.

DevD offers a reflection of the Indian male’s attitude towards female sexuality in our times. Dev is not able to handle the fact that Paro probably slept with someone else, when he is guilty of the same offence. Chanda’s father, who views her MMS clip, comes up with the following pearls of wisdom “She knew what she was doing”. There is also a scene involving the guy who shot the MMS landing up at Chanda’s house with an offer to marry her (Raja Ki Aayegi Baarat anyone), pointedly he talks to Chanda’s mom before talking to her. To cap it all there is a brilliantly shot scene of Dev waking up after passing out the previous night and looking at Chanda with intense scorn and contempt.

Dev.D works well because the rapid-fire succession of memorable scenes forces the suspension of disbelief in order to concentrate better on the creation of hilarity through vulgarity. Add on quite a bit of "inspired" gorgeous camerawork (which inspiration, by the way, we applaud wholeheartedly), unsubtly subtle tongue-in-cheek humour, and if these aren't reasons enough to watch it on the big screen, well, there are other, more effective reasons to do with (lack of) plot and execution.

DevD is a movie where the two leading ladies show excellent character, while all the males are at the other end of the spectrum. When Paro comes to meet Dev the first thing she does is clean his room and wash his clothes while all Dev can do is sit back and allow her to take charge. According to a book we read a long time ago one of the reasons for this is the extremely lavish affection that most Indian guys get as kids. Towards the end of the movie when Dev comes home to attend his father’s funeral, his mother rains slaps and fists on him and you wonder whether she was not twenty years too late in meting out the treatment which might have given him a bit more spine to go through life.

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The movie starts of with a young Dev and Paro having a catfight of sorts over the hygienic nature of canal water on its banks, whereupon young D is sent off to school in the land of the former colonial masters. Naturally, there persists (one of those incidents of suspension of disbelief) a relationship between them over what ought to be an absurdly long time, and the next thing you know, a much older D comes back[1]to the vaterland. Oh, and it turns out that one of the perks of transplanting the movie from the east to more agriculturally rich areas is that Dev and Paro do not expand as expected, while C does.

Anurag Kashyap’s direction is awe-inspiring. For a change we do not have the heroine look as though she has just walked out of a Beauty Parlor while walking through Punjab’s fields or a hero who for a change only drinks rather than sports six packs. The teasing and mocking references to that totally lacking in soul and the endlessly grimace inducing Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s movie Devdas are well placed. I could count at least three and the one we liked the most was the very off hand way in which Paro and Chanda meet in DevD on a train, after which Chanda boards a bus and the song “Dola re Dola” is playing on the bus. There is a long contrived plot to get Chanda and Paro to meet in SLB’s Devdas and the conversation they have is probably much more boring than the Monday morning 0730 lectures of Physics-II in SN Bose Auditorium. The way the titles come on both at the beginning and the end of the movie is something we liked and if you have not seen to watch out for. The other thing is the way a drunken Dev is handled, instead of the usual Bollywood way of the hero ranting and raving at God for all the injustices doled out to him, we find Dev more often than not yielding to Newton’s forces in a random but all the same natural manner.

Now, there's no point in outlining the plot (well, there might have been, if the movie had anything worth spoiling), so we can skip right on to the interesting parts. There's a nice bit of ambiguity on whether P has a relationship with a third, unnamed person with a head that doubles as a dysfunctional corkscrew. While a cursory view of the movie might reinforce one side of this argument, there remains enough doubt as to what the correct answer is. The script works harder than expected to keep this as an open question, so we leave it that way. (Such small touches - there are a few more - make this movie an enjoyable watch for someone doomed to absorb such questionable pearls of wisdom as might be provided by observing TV quiz shows.)

The cinematography is also of a standard well beyond most Bollywood movies. The first half of the movie has so many uses of mirrors that we are reminded of our personal favorite the incomparable Ingmar Bergman. The second half showcases Delhi in a way that we have never before seen in Hindi cinema. The shots of the Hotels in Paharganj makes one feel like RK Narayan’s books do, you think you are right there
on the same street with the characters and as much part of the action as they are. Watch out for the scene with Hotel Grand in the background when Dev and Chunni meet for the first time. The shots of a drunk and stoned Dev apparently thanks to Danny Boyle’s camera are also the first of their kind in Hindi cinema, the way the whole world around Dev seems to whirr faster and faster. Talking out of personal experience (for obvious reasons we do not remember most of them) this is exactly how one feels when drunk, for stoned we probably need to wait for a certain sheermelody writer to second.

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Next, of course, is the inevitable MMS scandal. AK has drawn a lot from once-current events in this part of the world, and this one seems exquisitely appropriate for some reason. Relying on imperfect memory with AWGN, it seems that the original scandal had surreal moments, such as when certain bloggers in the proximity of the original Lenni demonstrating the breathtaking stupidity of posting real names online (an inevitable consequence of an unjustified sense of entitlement meeting a functional internet connection). We ignore (for obvious reasons) other antics from this time entirely. While remembering whether more mainstream news sources handled things any better isn't feasible (and is probably not worth the effort), one lesson the "great opportunity going forward" types ought to have learned is the unusual persistence of anything ever left on the internet. The other lesson, regarding blogs in general, and blogs by people originating from a particular timezone in particular, we leave out owing to our fear of the blogwa.

The sound track of the movie is yet another unique aspect. I don’t think that I have ever heard a Hindi movie having such a psychedelic sound track. Almost all the songs are played twice consecutively, once when Dev is drunk and immediately followed by for a lack of a better choice of words the morning after version. If we had to pick personal favorites they would be “Saali Khushi” and of course “Emosanal Attyachar”. And the dance that “The Twilight” folks perform in the bar simply left us gaping with our mouth wide open.

We move on (change, etc.) to Chandramukhi/Lenni, a proficienct juggler who is also fluent in Tamil and French (but apparently not Bengali), and has a tendency to read pandaic literature (did I mention my hate of schmottasses?). She's the (cute, when not all dolled up) third main character, and not so surprisingly the only one we feel any real sympathy for, even if her methods of learning to drive are better called accident zones. As a completely unrelated aside, what's with the designery rooms, Che ashtrays and coffee machines? It certainly incites unrealistic thoughts about recession-proof careers.

The casting director deserves full marks. Abhay Deol is tailor made for the role of Dev. Playing a rich spoilt clueless passive personality should come as natural to him as throwing pitty files out of the lab comes to Electrical Engineering professors. Mahi essays the role of the pragmatic Paro with an ease that is rarely seen in most heroines of Bollywood. In one of the best scenes in the movie Dev tells Paro “Main tum se pyaar karna chahta hoon!!”, Paro replies “Log pyaar karte hain, pyaar karne ki koshish kaun karta hai!!”. Those two lines in a most succinct manner sum up the two characters. But the real star of the movie is Kalki Koechlin playing Chanda. The portion where she talks on the phone in Tamil followed by French and then back in Tamil, end the call, call her boss and inform in the coolest possible tone the time shows us that this is a lady who means business, that it is just a profession for her. The pain her voice as she says “And they call me a slut” makes one want to reach out and comfort her, this goes down at least in our book on cinema as comparable to “I could ‘ave been somebody”.

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Old man D remains thoroughly detestable, right from his initial appearance, a tendency to view the world from a Dannyboyle-enabled bottom-of-the-bottle, and finally to the demonstration of why ethanol-powered automotion might not mean what you think it means (with, of course, apologies to I. Montoya.) D's procurer, who apparently has enough clout from the original to be listed in IMDB's cast, has a viciously two-dimensional character, and one wonders why he's in the picture at all, particularly since his second-in-command was competent enough to do his job. P is the central object of affections for D, real or imagined, but apart from the beginning of the movie, and a delightful little detox interlude, doesn't really figure much in the latter half. Not that we're complaining, of course.

Roger Ebert felt that the reason Pulp Fiction is a great movie, is due entirely to the high quality of dialogue in the movie. DevD is right up there in this regard. From “Main aa raha hoon” to “Dilli main billi ko maarna chahiye, khaana chahiye lekin paalna nahin chahiye” it is one roller coaster of a ride. The clincher though is how a migration from east-west-east made a certain man change from a) Whiskey to Vodka, b) Chicken to Fish c) Voluptuous women to size zero men with b****s!!! Be warned though that some of the dialogues being in Punjabi may not be easily comprehended.

The movie is split into three parts, one for each main character, and one not-part that ought to have been for the intermission, which of course was noticed later than it should have been by the projectionist or its modern equivalent in the modern multiplex. Each part has what one assumes are to be subtle events that dovetail them together, and this could have been done using much less film: the movie is just too long, particularly since there are elements that either should have been developed more (like the brother and the sister of the brother) or just been completely removed.

The one complaint we have with this movie is that the ending was too good to be true. But then again we have a thing for dark despairing endings, we would have much preferred an ending where Dev dies on the Tso-Moriri plains and the last shot is of some scavenging birds tearing his innards apart. (Here is when you readers are supposed to go “Thank God, he studied Thoka and does circuit design and not make movies”)

The music deserves firm applause, for firmly sticking to the background where it belongs. It's a decent score, even though its very aptness condemns it to the grey oblivion of forgetfulness. Emosanal atyachar notwithstanding.

All in all this is a cult movie. There have been comparisons with this being the Indian equivalent of “English August”, “Catcher in the Rye” or the equivalent of “The Wall” due to its psychedelic music. To add our two penny’s worth to the comparisons, if it did remind us of any book, it was Midnight’s Children. Like the book we hope that the movie ushers in a whole new genre of Indian film making, and like the book which had a quality of sustained brilliance to it, the movie is similar in scene after scene one encounters cinema of a very high quality. And to a movie that I can compare it with, if I may do so without inviting the wrath of anyone, I think it is in a way like “La Dolce Vita”. While LDV is the story of a writer trying to write his great novel, DevD is the story of Dev trying to do possibly the most creative thing possible, live one’s life and try to find meaning in it.

It is the ending where this movie really disappoints. It may not be realistic to expect a commercially unviable ending from a Bollywood movie, the current unsatisfactory ending only leaves us wondering why anyone who demonstrates the catalytic action of alcohol and additives to convert mechanical perfection into a ton or so of instant death actually deserves a happy (for some questionable value of happy) ending. Or even any ending but one at all. What might have been a worthy equivalent of 'Requiem for a Dream' ends up as the Slumdog Love Triangle.

And the greatest incontestable proof that this is a great movie is that The Alternate Moebyus promised to strangle our necks once he was done watching the movie with us. But the fact that we are writing this review and TAM came up with “This is a decent movie” after watching it should educate you on really how good the movie was.

[1] No, he does not, apparently, return.

(Bah. not posting regularly here means that the story of when the Brain watched Pinky confront the molar police is necessarily out of date. Sheer pity.)

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire

Just watched Slumdog Millionaire yesterday. It was a bit disconcerting to watch it with just maybe ten more people in a theater and none of them Indian at that.

The plot of the movie is the most engrossing part. Jamal who grew up in the Slums of Mumbai is on the verge of answering the final question in KBC*. In police custody and accused of cheating, Jamal narrates to his interrogators how each question related to different incidents in his life and as a result his knowing the answer.

The movie starts off with a particularly well filmed scene of the cops chasing a very young Jamal as he is playing cricket on the outfields of the Mumbai airport. As the cops wind up running through the nooks and crannies of the slum, for me these were the most vivid images of the film. But sadly what started off as a very promising beginning only ends up going south after that. In a particularly improbable series of events involving Jamal escaping onto a train, landing up in Agra becoming an official tour guide at the Taj Mahal which by a more gifted director/cinematographer would have probably been the high point as far as visual imagery was concerned, in Danny Boyle's hands turns out to be a underwhelming experience.

Anil Kapoor perfectly plays the part of the show host who cannot put up with the fact that someone else will earn in a couple of hours what probably took him decades to achieve**. But what really spoilt the whole movie experience for us was the obvious mis-casting of Dev Patel as the grown up Jamal. He has the same I-am-lost-get-me-out-of-here expression in all his scenes without exception. One could probably understand the sense of awe in the scenes involving the TV show but in scenes involving Freida Pinto*** the love of his life the results come off very badly.

AR Rahman has done a wonderful job with the sound track of the movie and we think we will be buying the music CD*** soon.

To sum it up all, the plot is great, no thanks to the film crew and all credit to Vikas Swarup. With no dis-credit to Danny Boyle but this is probably the best he can do and it just did not pass muster for me. A good movie should never leave one feeling "if-only-someone-else-had-made-it"*****, unfortunately the same cannot be said of Slumdog Millionaire. If you are really tempted to watch a similar movie that is infinitely better we recommend City of God. We are sorely tempted to pick up the book though.

P.S : Any movie that shows the great Sir Jack Hobbs as Jack Hobbs is surely mediocre, the cricket aficionado part of me says.

* In the movie the show name is changed to "Who wants to be a Millionaire" targeted towards the American audience I guess.

** At the beginning of the movie his making fun of the chai-wallah is very improbable, thought most of them would probably have the same opinion but they would have expressed it in private rather in full public view. Most of our super stars are very very careful under the flash lights.

*** And we seemed to have developed a massive weakness for Ms Pinto now.......

**** If we shake off our customary laziness and get our Car CD player to work again that is.

***** Krzystof Kieslowski or the late Satyajit Ray, yeah we know we are being unfair to Boyle but then again the plot was so good it deserved a better director