Saturday, February 27, 2010

Film Review: Karthik Calling Karthik

The psychological thriller genre has long been a Hollywood mainstay, and it finally arrives in Bollywood with Vijay Lalwani's Karthik Calling Karthik.

The first few scenes of this film set up a fascinating character study -- anyone who's an introvert of this specific kind (or knows one fairly well) will find it easy to identify with Karthik's suffocating loneliness and lack of social confidence, and Farhan Akhtar seems to be really tapping into this character's inner turmoil in this early stage of the film (he does very well in the rest of the film too). This is a great premise for complex human exploration, but the screenplay chooses to cut the tension with the film's central conceit far too soon: a phone call that Karthik receives from an unknown entity that claims to be (and sounds exactly like) him.

As you may have already seen in the trailers (or read in news articles), Karthik's alter-ego inspires him to undergo a sea change, giving him confidence to stand up against a tyrant boss and helping him in getting the girl of his dreams (Deepike Padukone, acting believably for once). Herein lies the film's biggest flaw, because this transformation never really happens on screen -- there is no connective tissue to explain how this character undergoes such a drastic transition and the film suffers for it. It would've been far more believable if the screenplay would've allowed this change to play out gradually over a few conversations. (Lalwani structures the second half far more believably, where you get to see what could be described as the reverse-transformation of this character).

It's difficult to describe the rest of the plot without giving away spoilers so I'll refrain from revealing any further details. Anyone who's seen enough Hollywood films, though, will be able to stay a couple of steps ahead of the screenplay; and that's part of what ruined the experience for me. Early on in the film, there's a flashback to Karthik's childhood and if, like me, you've seen a fair number of psychological thrillers, you'll easily guess one of the film's central mysteries. (The big reveal comes at the end when it doesn't seem like a reveal at all, destroying any expectations of a crackling climax, which this film needed). 

The second half of this film is much stronger than the first -- the screenplay and editing post-interval are very tight. In contrast, the pacing of the first half can be described as wobbly at best. Cinematographer Sanu John Varughese mixes a number of styles to shoot this film, though the flashbacks have been shot in the same tones (and include the same unnecessary voice-overs) that a lot of Bollywood films seem to be using these days. The scenes switch to black and white at pivotal moments, even as you see a bright red light flickering behind the window.

In the end, Karthik is a film defined by its disappointments almost as much as it is defined by its strengths -- at every stage, the screenplay sets up an interesting character arc and then doesn't seem willing to pursue it for fear of losing audience love. The film succeeds as an exercise in style, and is engaging for most of its runtime, but a number of elements in the story could've been used far more effectively. It refuses to fully embrace its dark side, wimping out of an ending that could've added much more to this story. 

In the closing shot, we're left with an image of the Rubik's cube Karthik has been working on, lying on the table, completely solved (a metaphor for his life you see!). I have a feeling this would've ended differently in Hollywood. Grade: B-

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Opening This Weekend

The latest offering from the Farhan Akhtar/ Ritesh Sidhwani stable, Karthik Calling Karthik arrives this weekend. Ad-man Vijay Lalwani makes his directorial debut with this intriguing feature, supposedly based on the concept of "Depersonalization". I was reading up on this and here's what the Wikipedia entry on depersonalization states:

Depersonalization is a malfunction or anomaly of the mechanism by which an individual has self-awareness. It is a feeling of watching oneself act, while having no control over a situation. It can be considered desirable, such as in the use of recreational drugs, but it usually refers to the severe form found in anxiety and, in the most intense cases, panic attacks. Sufferers feel they have changed, and the world has become less real, vague, dreamlike, or lacking in significance. It can be a disturbing experience, since many feel that, indeed, they are living in a "dream".

Individuals who experience depersonalization feel divorced from their own personal physicality by sensing their body sensations, feelings, emotions and behaviors as not belonging to the same person or identity. Often a person who has experienced depersonalization claims that life "feels like a movie" or things seem unreal or hazy. Also, a recognition of self breaks down (hence the name). Depersonalization can result in very high anxiety levels, which further increase these perceptions.

The article goes on to state that this is the third most common psychological symptom after anxiety and depression! The last film (that I know of) to have used this concept was 2000's American Psycho, starring Christian Bale (if you haven't seen this great film, see it now!).In an interview for Hindustan Times, Farhan Akhtar says that during the making of the film... "I did stop meeting friends, answering the phone and even exercising. The character I was to play was lonely and feeling sorry for himself. I ended up feeling depressed too."

I don't know about you, but all this sounds extremely interesting to me. I'll try to catch the film on Friday and will hopefully have a review up soon!

(Edit: I just discovered that Wikipedia is the only place which states that Karthik is based on depersonalization. In fact, it says "This Film Base on Depersonalisation".

Under Box Office, it says:

This is Farmans One of the most awaiting Film in to the all of youth
After Rock on Farhan Need one other Hit
Deepika Look Gorges in this movie
This movie shall go in to the this year hit list

LOL. So not sure if the earlier information is correct, but it'd be cool if it is)

Also opening this week

It's Complicated: At the unlikely age of 60, the great Meryl Streep has turned into quite a box office draw. This Nancy Meyers directed romantic comedy also stars Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin and has grossed almost $200 million worldwide.

Invictus: Clint Eastwood's Nelson Mandela biopic failed in its Oscar bid for a spot in the expanded Best Picture line-up, but it did manage to score nominations for its two main stars: Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon. This will be a good choice if inspirational dramas are your thing.

Teen Patti: Amitabh Bachchan and Ben Kingsley star in what seems to be a remake of 21. Leena Yadav, who earlier directed the terrible Aishwarya Rai-Sanjay Dutt starrer Shabd says: "Teen Patti is a study of materialism, greed and acquisitiveness in our times", while denying any relation to 21.... right.

The Princess and the Frog: Disney's latest attempt to re-capture its old magic. The film was well received by critics and has been nominated in the Best Animated Feature category at the Oscars.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Multiplex Decade: The Best of Bollywood (2000-2009)

It's hard to narrow down a decade into one list, but it's also a great way of looking back at how radically Bollywood changed in the last ten years. As multiplexes opened (and flourished) across the country, re-invigorating the "experience" of movie-watching, new filmmakers began to realize the potential of a new kind of cinema. The seeds had been sown in the late nineties, when Nagesh Kukunoor's Hyderabad Blues proved that urban viewers were ready for a new wave (sure, films like English August came earlier, but Hyderabad Blues was the one that showed that this brand of movies had real commercial viability). The ease of access to cinema from around the world influenced new filmmakers in the best of ways -- they were willing to break out of the Bollywood formula that had survived for decades.

In many ways, this second new wave was very different from the "parallel cinema" new wave that began in the eighties. This time, there were no parallel movements; instead, everything seemed to converge -- art house directors were willing to work with big stars, and mainstream actors and directors were experimenting with new subjects and pushing the boundaries of what can be defined as mainstream. These changes resulted in what is perhaps the best and most varied set of films any Bollywood decade has ever produced. We may not have completely returned to the golden age of Indian cinema when filmmakers like Guru Dutt, Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak were establishing their own cinematic language, but thanks to the current crop of filmmakers (who've drawn inspiration not only from these icons, but also from modern filmmakers ranging from Quentin Tarantino to Wong-Kar Wai), we're almost there.

The following list is not an objective list of the best films made in the 2000s. I don't know if it's possible to make such a list. The reaction to art is, after all, subjective; and the effect of one film is never exactly the same on two viewers. This is, therefore, a list of my "personal favorites", a chronicle of a decade in which I changed both as a person and a film-viewer. It was tough to pick ten films; I love most of the films that missed out almost as much as the ones that made the final list.

The honorable mentions, in alphabetical, order: Asoka, Black Friday, Chandni Bar, Dor, Gulaal, Hera Pheri, Kaminey, Lage Raho Munnabhai, Life in a... Metro, Mithya, Monsoon Wedding, Naach, No Smoking, Omkara, Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!, Parzania, Rang De Basanti, Socha Na Tha, Swades, Taare Zameen Par

10. Company
(Ram Gopal Varma, 2002)

It's difficult to remember a time when Ram Gopal Varma was among the best directors in the country, but this film is a reminder that no one could make it like Ramu in the good old days. Satya may be the better film, but this is his magnum opus: a sprawling, exhaustive underworld saga where Varma juggles characters and scenes with the kind of finesse rarely seen in cinema at the time (or since). Even minor members get to play fully realized characters in this stupendous cast but Ajay Devgan towers above the rest with a magnetic performance. Varma's recent output isn't all bad, but he hasn't been able to find his groove since Company, and Bollywood cinema is all the lesser for it. 

9. Black
(Sanjay Leela Bhansali, 2005)

Sanjay Leela Bhansali's brand of artistic melodrama has been ridiculed for a long time, but there are few directors who can claim to possess the same understanding of cinema's sensory experience as Bhansali. Black's heavily-stylized aesthetics aren't for everyone. You will often hear people complaining about elements of this film being excessively over the top: Amitabh Bachchan's performace, the background score, the almost completely black production design and costumes; but they're missing the point. Bhansali's films are essentially filmed operas, and the notes in this particular symphony are always in sync and never less than perfect.

8. Jaane Tu... Ya Jaane Na
(Abbas Tyrewala, 2008)

Of all the films on this list, Jaane Tu is probably the least important -- it's not about overcoming disabilities, history-defining events or the mysterious people of the Mumbai underworld -- but that's also what's so great about it: It's about people like you and me, about the process of growing up, something all of us are familiar with. At its core lies an uncommonly observant screenplay; Abbas Tyrewala lays out all the cards on the table right at the start: Best friends falling in love! Fight! Airport Climax! And part of the fun is how this screenplay spins each of these "masala" movie cliches into something completely fresh and entertaining. Tyrewala details even minor characters in this story with the kind of care rarely seen in Bollywood screenplays -- this beautiful texturing results not only in real, complex characterizations, but also brings out memorable performances from the most unexpected places (Pratik Babbar, Sugandha Garg). Years from now when people think of films that best encapsulated the current generation, Jaane Tu... Ya Jaane Na will have few contenders for a place on the list. 

7. Mr. and Mrs. Iyer
(Aparna Sen, 2002)

As a country, we're defined by our diversity. Having grown up in a certain environment, it's difficult to come to terms with the other religions, castes, cultures, and sub-cultures that exist within our country. This is one of the many things that Aparna Sen is trying to tell us through this story in which a conservative, Hindu Brahmin from Tamil Nadu must come to terms with the fact that the passenger sitting next to her in a bus to Chennai is a Muslim man. Sen is never judgmental as she brings out the prejudices of the film's characters, and she is wise to keep the focus on the central couple's journey. It's as romantic as the best of love stories, without so much as a kiss shared between the two. More than anything else, this film will be remembered as our introduction to Konkona Sen Sharma --  this was the starting point for the incomparable resume she has built in the multiplex era -- and it remains her best performance to date.

6. Luck By Chance
(Zoya Akhtar, 2009)

Luck By Chance is essentially an inside joke and everyone involved with the film is in on this joke, especially the stars who make cameo appearances in the film. Not surprisingly, the joke was lost on the (few) people who went to watch this film while it was in theaters. Zoya Akhtar's film feels nothing like a debut -- her screenplay and direction reveal more nuances with every viewing (being an industry kid obviously helped) and she beautifully captures the insecurities of those who make it in the industry (Hrithik Roshan, playing superstar Zafar Khan, a stand-in for you-know-who) as well as those who don't (Arjun Mathur, delivering the film's most heartfelt performance). This is a film full of beautifully observed moments: In one unforgettable scene, Karan Johar appears at a party and discusses with Zafar how outsiders make it in the film world; as Hrithik turns to look at the star he unknowingly helped create (a million thoughts running through his head), the look on his face and the music that swells in the background never fail to send a chill down my spine.

5. Lagaan: Once Upon A Time in India
(Ashutosh Gowarikar, 2001)

Too much has already been said about this film for me to add anything new. The fact that it ended up on the Oscar nomination list takes the focus away from the real backstory, the effort that went behind bringing this film to the screen. No producer was ready to back this seemingly outlandish concept because of the sheer number of rules that this film was breaking at the time. Despite its international success (if you can call the Oscar nomination that), this is a film for an Indian audience -- it's impossible to forget the electric atmosphere in cinema halls across the country where this movie played, eliciting the kind of reactions and celebrations seen only seen during live matches in cricket stadiums.

4. Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi
(Sudhir Mishra, 2005)

The title of Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi comes from a Mirza Ghalib ghazal:
हज़ारों ख़्वाहिशें ऐसी की हर ख़्वाहिश पे दम निकले
बहुत निकले मेरे अरमान लेकिन फिर भी कम निकले 
("A thousand desires worth dying for, So many fulfilled and yet they seem to be so few")

There isn't a much better way to describe this astonishing film about three people trying to find their place in the most horrifying political era this country has ever seen. It may be one of the most important works of our time, a film that needed to be made to give voice to the generation that lived and struggled through those times. This isn't a film as much as a rich novel -- we may never completely understand what it felt like being part of a revolution at the time or agree with the choices these characters make, but thanks to Mishra's writing and the brilliant actors, we understand why these characters head down the paths they choose. You will find it difficult to forget the way Chitrangada Singh's face reflects the entire gamut of emotions this character feels through the course of this story. That she didn't do any substantial work after this film remains one of the great tragedies of our time. 

3. Maqbool
(Vishal Bhardwaj, 2004)

Makdee was an accomplished debut, but Maqbool is the film that heralded the arrival of one of contemporary Hindi cinema's best directors: Vishal Bhardwaj. Bhardwaj transports Shakespeare's Macbeth to Mumbai's gritty underworld with stellar results; the three witches turning into two corrupt cops (played brilliantly by Om Puri and Naseeruddin Shah) is this screenplay's master stroke. The underworld portrayed in this film carries no hint of romanticism seen in many other gangster films: this is a dark, corrupt, brutal world and the violence is often sudden and abrupt. Plus: This film is an acting textbook, featuring career best work from a menacing Pankaj Kapur and Tabu, who turns the Lady Macbeth role on its head, adding layers of emotion and vulnerability to one of the most ruthless and ambitious female characters in history.

2. Dil Chahta Hai
(Farhan Akhtar, 2001)

Film critic extraordinaire Baradwaj Rangan notes in his Best of the Decade list: "2001 was Aamir Khan’s annus mirabilis. If Lagaan was the sixer that landed on the Oscar stage, as Best Foreign Film nominee, Farhan Akhtar’s debut earned itself a worthier distinction. It birthed the über-cool multiplex cinema as we know it today. But historical distinction apart, it was also one hell of an entertaining ride."

That sums it up rather well. 2001 was a watershed year for Aamir Khan -- Lagaan may be the consensus choice for the decade's best film (and it's hard to argue with that) but this was the film that influenced and shaped new age mainstream cinema as we know it today. Few films have made such an impact, but even fewer have been this enjoyable.

1. Dev D
(Anurag Kashyap, 2009)

I could think of no better film to symbolize the changing face of Indian cinema in this decade than Dev D -- no other director in the industry today shares Anurag Kashyap's uncompromising artistic vision and this is his masterpiece, a dizzying, subversive take on one of Indian literature's most well-known stories. It's easy to see the influences: Wong Kar-Wai, Danny Boyle, Darren Aronofsky; but Kashyap distills these film-making styles into a cinematic language of his own. The dazzling cinematography and editing are an integral part of this film, but it's the music that outshines every other contribution here. Songs have always been an integral part of Bollywood cinema, but never before have they been used within the fabric of the narrative as in the case of Dev D. Each of the 18 (!) tracks in this epic soundtrack find a place in the film, and Kashyap uses them to add texture and mood to the images on screen. He doesn't make it easy to follow the emotional arc of this story, but for those who manage to look beyond the intoxicating exterior and follow the maze, there is a bruised and beating heart at the center of this tale. Once the surface shock begins to wear off, Dev D will take its rightful place as a landmark in the history of Indian cinema.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Film Review: My Name is Khan

Karan Johar and Shah Rukh Khan's latest arrives amidst overblown controversy, expected hype and the mainstream critical community firmly on its side. My Name is Khan is the first directorial effort by Johar that isn't based on his own writing, and right from the outset, you can tell that the director is trying to break away from his previous work -- the opening credits do not arrive with a booming chorus or fancy lettering. Instead, they quietly play over the scene as we find our lead character, Rizvan Khan, heading to the airport. We follow him to the security checking area, where his co-passengers look at his behavior with increasing suspicion. With its dramatic camera angles and background score, the strip search scene that follows immediately sets out to plant the viewers on the protagonist's side.

It is here, that Johar makes the most over-abused narrative choice -- the voice-over. We are taken back to Rizvan's childhood in Mumbai. He suffers from Asperger's Syndrome, and the screenplay establishes his relationship with his mother (wonderfully played by Zareena Wahab) which will deeply affect the choices that he will make in his life. By the time these early scenes end, the first of this film's many half-assed sub-plots has already been set up and tossed aside -- that of Rizvan's brother and how Rizvan's condition affects the relationship between him and his mother (as Baradwaj Rangan notes in his review, this angle was already explored by Sanjay Leela Bhansali in Black).

After a series of events that follow, we find Rizvan heading to the US, to live with his brother and his wife. In San Francisco, Rizvan meets Mandira (Kajol), who as we discover later, is a single mother who walked out of an unhappy marriage (the screenplay isn't interested in the effect that this situation may have had on Mandira's son). The early scenes of their relationship are shot extremely well, and cinematographer Ravi K Chandran deserves as much credit as the director for bringing to life the sequences and locations of their early courtship (as well as the gorgeous locales on display in the second half). They're soon married but blissful life doesn't last very long, as the whole family finds itself being affected by the 9/11 and the events that follow in the its wake. The rest of the film follows Rizvan on his journey to meet the President, to tell him that he's not a terrorist.

If that last part makes it sound like this is a movie dealing with terrorism (as the filmmakers and studio would like you to believe), you are in for disappointment. New York and Kurbaan at least set out in that direction -- of trying to understand the mindset of the terrorist and what causes them to cross the line over to the other side -- even if they were failures in the end. My Name Is Khan is not bothered with those details, choosing to focus on its lead character's journey and the challenges he faces in overcoming a life affected with Asperger's Syndrome. The obvious template is Forrest Gump, another simplistic tale of a man beating the odds; "Life is like a box of chocolates" is replaced here by "Duniya mein sirf do tarah ke log hote hain, acche or bure" ("There are only two kinds of people in the world: Good and bad"). But the main ingredients that made Forrest Gump work -- a continuously inventive plot and a focused screenplay, even as it chose to skirt around the complexities of the events that unfolded in the span of Forrest's life -- are evidently missing here.

Human complexity is not Johar's strongest suit -- he failed on almost every level the last time he made an attempt at exploring complicated characters and situations (Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna). But I can sense that there is a desire in Johar to prove his "seriousness" as a director. Although his first two films were huge box office hits and were very well received by mainstream critics, he's had his fair share of vocal detractors who've labeled his brand of melodrama and flashiness as "bubble gum" fare. Johar is out to prove that he has matured as a director and is capable of handling serious themes. Sadly, that is also the ultimate undoing of this film, as it sits uncomfortably between an all-out mainstream melodrama and a more serious "message movie". 

The film depends on its lead actor to sell the story and Shah Rukh Khan is mostly effective in that department. It's an uneven performance that has honest, believable moments and self-aware, "look at my performance"  scenes in equal measure but it's certainly among his better performances and has flashes of brilliance that rival his best work in Swades. Kajol has always been a natural performer, and she is exceptionally good here -- even if she's hitting the same notes that we may have seen in her earlier performances. (Johar reigns in any possibilities of the actress going over the top, as she tends to do in excessively comedic or dramatic scenes). Other actors are mostly wasted -- most notably Arjun Mathur, Sonia Jehan and Sugandha Garg who have delivered memorable performances earlier in small roles (Luck By Chance, Khoya Khoya Chaand and Jaane Tu... Ya Jaane Na, respectively) and are relegated to the most troubling part of the film -- the last act.

I'm deliberately trying to avoid writing about the last act, which is as insulting, unfocused and unforgivable as anything you might've seen. The screenplay creates a series of events that are devoid of any realistic emotion or credibility, undoing all the better moments that have worked in the film till that point. It is essentially a repeat of the "Shah Rukh Khan as Messiah" last act from Kal Ho Na Ho, another film that lost its way in the final stretch. At more than two and a half hours, the film overstays its welcome and would have hugely benefited from a more disciplined editing.It is evident that Johar understands mainstream cinema extremely well, and as much as I may choose to ridicule that brand of film-making, I would love for Johar to go back to his strengths in his next project.

In one of the film's most memorable visuals, Shah Rukh Khan holds up a signboard that says "Repair Almost Anything". Unfortunately, this screenplay and film are beyond repair. Grade: C+

Sunday, February 7, 2010


Welcome to my new blog!

I'm Sid, a film lover from Mumbai, India. Between 2002 and 2005, I ran the now defunct website Oscar Race (here's the Web Archive link). My obsession with movies has only grown since then but it has taken me five years to finally sit down and start working on something again.

This blog has been a long gestating idea that has finally come to fruition, though I'm unsure as to what finally pushed me to actually do it. At the outset, I intend for this to be mostly a film blog but we'll see how things work out. Most of this blog is going to focus on Bollywood, Hollywood and World Cinema. There will be occasional musings on other obsessions: Music, Books, Television, Tennis and much more. 

I will start off with a round-up of this year's Bollywood releases and then hopefully retrospectives focusing on the best of 2009 and the past decade (2000-2009). Stay tuned!