Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Zangoora - The Gypsy Prince: Theatre Review

What do you get when you cross two soapstars, a dancer, three directors, the latter half of Salim-Javed, a hall with giant LED screens, an infinite numbers of dancers and a flying witch? The next big Abbas-Mustan release, you might say, and you’d only be half wrong. All of this adds up to Kingdom of Dreams’ new production Zangoora - The Gypsy Prince, billed as the “world’s biggest live Bollywood musical”. One assumes that they have Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Bombay Dreams in mind when they say “world’s biggest” because it’s India’s only. Zangoora goes where no Indian theatrical production has had the money, inclination or imagination (you can argue on which combination of the three) to go before.

Funny then, that it all felt so familiar. You realise the makers really meant what they said when they promised “Bollywood on stage”. The directors, Vikranth Pawar, Darshan Jariwala and David Freeman, seem to have decided that since there was already 80 years of popular Hindi cinema to choose from, why risk untried material? So you have Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy in charge of the music, but there’s just one original song; the rest are all interpretations of older hits (of which only one, a sinister version of the previously sunny “Chaand Taare”, sounds markedly different from the original). The makers play on the familiarity of cultural signposts; “Chura Liya Hai” is still seductive, “Mehbooba O Mehbooba” still has tents in the background. It was hardly surprising to hear the hero’s mother say “Iss din ke liye paal pos kar bada kiya hai? [Did I bring you up to have to see this day?]”. When you play to the gallery, there are no points given for originality.

The story exists mainly as a hook to hang songs on. It unfolds like this: kindly royal couple is killed by scheming minister, their infant son spirited away by loyal courtier. Son is left at gypsy camp where a couple pronounces him a sign from God. Grows up to be Zangoora; is loved by all but especially by fellow gypsy Laachi. Fly in her ointment comes in form of visiting princess whom Zangoora is smitten by. Many, many dances later, loyal courtier returns to tell Zangoora the “truth”, rest is about prince reclaiming his “destiny” and choosing between two women throwing themselves at him. The dialogues (Javed Akhtar might have been better employed here than on script duty), familiar riffs that involve heroes saying “I don’t understand who I am” and heroines saying “Bachao [Help]”, skirt banality. Luckily, there are dances, aerial sequences, magic tricks and other impressive distractions every ten minutes or so.

Though they may not admit it, the sheer scale of the production may have left the directors with little choice but to go with the tried and tested. And it’s all credit to them that they imbued it with as much energy as they did. There were 20-odd dance numbers in Zangoora, and almost every one of them was thrilling, ecstatic fun. The choreography by Shiamak Davar used the massive stage to good effect, adding line after line of dancers until the bodies were a moving tapestry and each song a mini-crescendo. Giant LED screens created backdrops for the action that gave a 3D-like effect. This effect was overwhelming in its sheer scale, even when the animation wasn’t up to scratch. It also allowed the makers to create scenes like the courtier galloping across the desert without having to get an actual horse on stage (though if that had to happen anywhere, you’d bet on Kingdom of Dreams).

Zangoora was played by TV actor Hussain Kuwajerwala, whose dancing abilities (he won season two of Nach Baliye) must have gone a long way towards winning him the role. Limited to weepy TV melodramas for most of his career, he seemed to enjoy playing a larger-than-life hero who dances, lip-synchs, fights, romances and takes off his shirt (let the record show a six-pack). The two leading ladies were just as much fun. Gauhar Khan, pegged as an item girl despite an excellent performance in last year’s Rocket Singh, played Laachi with stares withering and hips slithering. And television actress Kashmira Irani gave Princess Sonali a sense of humour and an appealing coquettishness. The rest of the performers hammed it up, all except Savita Kundra as the wicked witch Chambuti; her shrieking laugh was all the more impressive when one took into account that her entire performance was conducted in mid-air, suspended by wires.

In the end, Zangoora works as spectacle (not as theatre, sadly) largely because the makers had a venue like Nautanki Mahal and enough visual sense to know how to use it. Sheer economics should rule out potential imitators, even if India’s first attempt at a quasi-Broadway musical is a hit (audience reaction seemed to suggest it might). The real test will be the extended run its creators have planned. Theatrical productions in India run for a week or two at most. If Zangoora breaks the one month barrier, this might be the point when this fairy tale-mimicking production starts becoming an actual one.

A version of this review appeared in Time Out Delhi

The Wrong Man

Tell us if you’ve heard the story before. An honest man, trying to make ends meet, is picked up by the police. They tell him that he matches the description of a man who’s been conducting hold-ups in the neighbourhood. He accompanies them back to the station, and things start to unravel. He is identified by two witnesses as the criminal, his handwriting is a match as well. He is put in jail, insisting all the while that he is innocent. In another story, he might have been a faceless victim in a Kafkaesque nightmare; here he is Christopher Emmanuel Balestrero, played by Henry Fonda in The Wrong Man.

The “wrong man” theme was one of Hitchcock’s favourites – he had already used variations on it in a number of his movies. However, as the director himself warns in the narrated opening, The Wrong Man differs significantly from what one might expect from a Hitchcock film. It is based on a true story, and remains faithful to it. There are no MacGuffins. No black humour. No toying with the audience. The tone is somber, often harrowing. Regular collaborator Robert Burks, shooting in black and white, keeps the camera trained on the stricken face of Fonda, while Bernard Hermann contributes a moody, modal score. This austerity, combined with the Catholic references of the second half, reminds one of a Robert Bresson film – even though it’s hard to imagine two directors more dissimilar.

Released in 1956, The Wrong Man was one of Hitchcock’s best-received films. Its impression on the French was especially strong. Godard, then a critic, wrote a lengthy piece about it which invoked everyone from Murnau to Dreyer to Griffith; Truffaut declared it “probably his best film till now” (this in 1957, with Shadow of a Doubt, Notorious and Rear Window behind him). Having gotten it out of his system, Hitchcock never returned to this unironic, spare style. His next “mistaken identity” movie was North by Northwest, a caper so entertaining as to seem light-years removed from The Wrong Man.

A version of this review appeared in Time Out Delhi

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Angel: DVD Review

What is it that drew Francois Ozon, director of sensual character studies like Water Drops on Burning Rocks and Swimming Pool, to romance novelist Elizabeth Taylor? Angel, his first English-language feature, is based on her novel of the same name and set in Edwardian England. Angel Deverell starts the movie as schoolgirl who dreams of becoming a writer. A couple of reels and one sympathetic publisher later, her dream is on its way to being fulfilled. The only problem is that by now everyone dislikes her – the other characters, the audience, and most surprisingly, the film itself.

What do you do with a lead character who is self-absorbed, shallow, vain, manipulative and melodramatic? Liking her is out of the question, though one might have respected her if she had talent to back her spunk. However, even here the film seems to suggest that she’s little more than a hack. Still, the camera refuses to leave her. She’s in almost every frame, the undeserving cynosure of everyone’s eyes. The more we will the movie to dig deeper – to explain her motivations and give us a reason to sympathise – the more it pushes its Mills and Boons agenda.

The cast does their best – a quiet Sam Neill as the publisher, a wasted Charlotte Rampling as his wife. Michael
Fassbender, playing her love interest, has a cruel glint in his eye reminiscent of a young Daniel Day-Lewis. Ramola Garai, meanwhile, has the thankless job of playing a lead character who, as she admits in the cast interview included as a bonus feature, is far from admirable. She tries hard, but it’s a losing battle, what with her own film setting her up from the beginning.

A version of this review appeared in Time Out Delhi.

Fables of the Reconstruction: Reissue Review

An album review I did for Time Out Delhi. I leapt on it because it was R.E.M and if you think this review sounds generous, I assure you I was holding back. In a happier, more R.E.M-literate Delhi, I would have written a straight rave. And try and get your hands on the Reckoning reissue, it has a bonus live disc that's just one long glorious garage-punk set.

It’s been 25 years since Fables of the Reconstruction first confused R.E.M fans who expected them to continue in the direction established by their debut Murmur, or its follow-up Reckoning. These two albums set the template for that early R.E.M sound – guitar-driven folk-rock with a hint of punk, mumbled vocals by Michael Stipe, gorgeous three-part harmonies and elliptical, evocative lyrics. Fables broke this template in ways that expanded on the band’s sound even as they departed from it. Now, the I.R.S label, home for their first five albums, is reissuing Fables (and the rest of their catalogue, to coincide with each record’s silver anniversary).

This album, with Joe Boyd (Fairport Covention, Nick Drake) on board as producer, is described by guitarist Peter Buck in his liner notes as a “doomy, psycho record, dense and atmospheric.” Nowhere is this more apparent than in the opener “Feeling Gravity’s Pull”, a nightmarish mix of scratchy guitars, strings, and Stipe’s insistent voice telling you about a “Man Ray kind of sky”. This feeling of unease runs through the album, in songs like the creepy “Old Man Kensey” and the hurtling rockers “Auctioneer (Another Engine)” and “Life and How to Live it”. There’s also the flat-out weird soul-funk pastiche “Can’t get there from here”.

There are, however, moments that are more easily identifiable as R.E.M. “Driver 8” is a perfect encapsulation of their early jangly sound. “Green Grow the Rushes” combines Peter Buck’s unmistakable Rickenbacker sound with obliquely political songwriting that would grow more strident on their next few albums. "Good advices" appears to be a happier flipside to "Camera", a song off Reckoning which would have fit right in with this album's haunted, off-kilter universe. And the album closer, “Wendell Gee”, is a country ballad, complete with banjo and the sublime backing vocals of bassist Mike Mills.

The reissue comes with a bonus disc of demos. All the songs on Fables get a run through, and the band must have been well-prepared by the time they performed them, because they differ very little from the finished product. Still, fans will probably appreciate the bare bones versions of “Auctioneer” and “Kahoutek”, as well as two discarded songs - the enjoyably daft “Bandwagon” (a different version from the one on Dead Letter Office) and a number called “Throw Those Trolls Away”. Fables of the Reconstruction may not be R.E.M’s greatest album, but it’s an experiment that is brilliant in flashes and intriguing throughout – and coming from by a band that can list Radiohead, Coldplay, Eddie Vedder and Kurt Cobain amongst its admirers, that should be enough.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Is cross-listing bad for the soul?

A version of this post did not appear in Time Out Delhi.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Unishe April: Review

Though Hirer Angti was his first film, Rituparna Ghosh truly arrived on the national scene with Unishe April. A loose remake of Bergman’s Autumn Sonata, it won Best Film and Best Actress (Debashree Roy) at the 1994 National Awards. Like its acclaimed inspiration, at the heart of the film is the relationship between a famous, talented mother and the daughter who she neglects. The similarities end here - Ghosh’s approach may be spare, but it’s hardly as stark or unforgiving as the Swedish maestro’s.

Sarojini, a dancer utterly devoted to her craft, keeps her daughter Aditi at arm’s length. Aditi, having lost her father to a heart attack and her mother to dance, is the bhadralok version of a rebellious teen: she is studying to be a doctor, and gets on her mother’s nerves by being excessively polite. Early on in Unishe April, Sarojini learns that she’s been selected for a prestigious award, resulting in her making immediate travel plans. This triggers off Aditi’s long-repressed feelings of abandonment, and when her mother unexpectedly returns that night, the resentment spills over.

Ghosh displays great assuredness for someone at the start of his filmmaking career. He patiently layers long, dialogue-heavy scenes one onto another, until the cumulative effect starts to show its power. At times one wishes that the visual flourishes – like the beautiful first shot where the camera pans away from the dancers, or the silhouette of Aditi lit by a single candle - were more frequent. The performances, however, keep one from straying. Roy gives Aditi a complexity often missing in such roles – her change in demeanour from the time she demands that her boyfriend call her long-distance to her break-down when he does, underlines the illusory nature of control. And Aparna Sen goes from affected to affecting as her character’s past is illuminated. Films made in this country often have teary endings, but few earn them the way this one does.

A version of this review appeared in Time Out Delhi.