Saturday, January 29, 2011

Strange old/Brave new world

In the past fortnight, I had two very unique movie-watching experiences. I don't mean the actual films themselves - though both were very good - but the process of seeing them. The first was a screening of Ozu's I Was Born But..., which I'd been waiting for ever since I learned the Habitat was screening it (confession - it was my first Ozu). The catch was that it was completely silent, sans dialogue and even a recorded (or tacked-on) soundtrack. That may not sound like a big deal, but really, in Delhi, when are things ever that quiet? I went in praying that I wouldn't embarass myself by a) walking out or b) drifting off. Luckily, neither happened. I watched it through, and realised why everyone (or at least everyone who's seen his films) keeps on about about Ozu's profoundly democratic camera.

The second instance was unexpected, a Hindi movie (Dhobi Ghat) in a hall I'd visited dozens of times (Priya). The audience response was tepid, and I guess it wasn't that difficult movie to deride, if one was in that sort of mood (the structure is similar to ensemble films like Babel and Crash, nothing major happens in terms of a plot, and the whole thing is light to the touch, not something our films are known for). I loved it though, most of all for it's meloncholic tone - utterly different from both the Bolly mainstream and the indies being made now days - but also for the all-round strong performances, especially by Prateik and Monica Dogra, the sound of Kriti Malhotra's voice, Gustavo Santaolalla's music (the other element borrowed from from the films of Inarittu), moody and spare, perfectly matching the feel of the film. When it ended, though, it felt strangely incomplete. I realised a few seconds later that this was the first movie I'd seen in India which hadn't run with an interval. It took me back to what Karan Johar, of all people, said in an interview to Raja Sen of Rediff ( Still, props to Kiran Rao, it's a great film. And another Delhi director...

Friday, January 21, 2011

Abohoman: DVD Review

By the time Abohoman got a DVD release in Delhi, it had been conferred the National Award for Best Actress (Ananya Chatterjee) and Best Director (Rituparno Ghosh’s second win after 2000’s Utsab). Like most other films by this director, it’s a wordy, elegant look at the troubled relationships of people who speak in modulated voices and are too cultured to throw things. It’s not a particularly new theme – ageing director falls for debutante actress, she becomes his mistress, wife doesn’t approve – and Ghosh probably knows this, which is why he boldly structures the movie as a series of cross-cuts across time.

To begin with, the strategy pays off. Ghosh introduces the central characters – director Aniket, his son Apratim, wife Deepti and muse Shikha – in a series of vignettes, all occurring at different points in their relationships with each other. Very little expository assistance is offered, and the result is engrossing, if disorienting. The scenes blend into each other seamlessly – Shikha at Aniket’s house auditioning, then at his funeral, then as a character in the movie he’s directing – and just when you’re wondering how long the director can keep this up, Ghosh loses his nerve. Abohoman retreats into a semi-linear narrative, the scenes become longer, and everyone onscreen starts to sigh a lot.

Abohoman sets up more interpersonal conflicts – director-muse, husband-wife, wife-mistress, father-son, wife-mother-in-law – than it knows how to deal with. Specifics get sacrificed; we never learn at what point Aniket becomes infatuated with Shikha, or how matters deteriorate to the point where he no longer cares to hide the affair from his family. Further confusion arises from the use of Nati Binodini as the film he directs. Ghosh starts off by suggesting a parallel between the legendary stage actress (also a kept woman) and Shikha, but drops the idea altogether in the second half. Even less convincing is Apratim’s wishful explanation that making a film on his father’s life would mean the end of the scandal his affair caused.

Ghosh is a genuinely gifted director of women, and it shows in Mamata Shankar’s controlled performance as Deepti and in Ananya Chatterjee’s seductive, steely Shikha. Deepankar De as the director and Jisshu Sengupta as his son do little wrong, but aren’t privy to Ghosh’s affection in the way the women are. Special mention must be made of Arghya Kamal Mitra’s editing; it’s the driving force behind the opening half hour, the only part of the movie with true greatness in it. Otherwise, Abohoman is two steps forward, two back, and pirouette.

A version of this review was published in Time Out Delhi.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Re: Stacks

Those who've seen the unbearably sad ending to Season 4 of House will recognise this song. The lyrics tell their own sad, elliptical story, and I never realised till today that the three-line chorus involved subtle variations on a sentence and not just repetitions of it. Listen carefully, and you'll hear this:
On your back with your racks as the stacks as your load
In the back and the racks and the stacks are your load
In the back with your racks and you're unstacking your load