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Monday, August 31, 2009

Bhramaram - A Review


Finally, Blessy’s Bhramaram hit the shores of Mumbai on Friday and many Malayalees (Lalettan fans and otherwise) thronged to watch the movie, hoping to watch Lal recreate his magic of yesteryears. Lal shines but Blessy stumbles as the movie which could have been a classic remains a film, brilliant in parts but lost in many others. Is the legacy of Padmarajan and Bharathan making it difficult for Blessy to progress beyond his debut?

Bhramaram tells the story of a stranger who makes a sudden appearance in Unni’s house, amidst the Coimbatore blasts, claiming to be a long lost classmate. Unni, a successful stockbroker, is unable to remember Jose (as the stranger calls himself) but since Jose knows many of the events of the past, he trusts him.

The purpose of Jose's visit (who is later revealed to be Sivankutty, his old classmate wrongly implicated in a murder by Unni and his friend, in their teens) is shrouded in mystery. He refuses any kind of help and only wishes to talk about something important in isolation. Jose's eerie behavior disturbs the composure of Unni's wife and disturbs his professional life. And, the revelation of Jose's real identity and purpose of his sudden appearance creates further tremors.

The movie starts on a slow note and brings along a small ensemble of characters who do not add any value to the plot. The loud and garishness of Unni’s caricatured neighbour and his family have a jarring and irritating feel in the movie. Every once a while, the movie catches steam, it fires, only to halt again and go again in this haphazard journey till it reaches the climax which, despite Lal’s efforts, just does not register.

Lal’s story as it spirals to an uneven climax is on the face and carries too much melodrama; the tragedy which is communicated brilliantly through Lal is lost in the writing. It needed to be less verbose and more compact but settles down for an unevenness which does not suit the genre that it tries to find itself in. Technically, also other than the camerawork, it remains amateurish – witness the very obvious special effects on display when the glass breaks during the hilly rides and the sight of the hills from far below.

The movie could possibly do with a good half an hour of editing. I’d suggest hive off Unni’s neighbours, the stunt scene, trim down the flashback and dwell more on the trio and work at the fear element. With an excellent background in Munnar and its nearby areas, I’d like to believe that the fear factor could have been easy to be drawn into.

The biggest drawback is probably the script, whose credit goes to Blessy himself. It moves just as uncertainly as their travel in the high ranges and Lal’s finicky behaviour. The flashback story is fairly weak - especially, the reaction of his daughter (an irritating kid by cinema standards, I must say), whose only role seemed to be to squeeze tears from the audience.

When directors try to spoon feed the audience or try to use fairly obvious symbols, the attempts fall flat. Witness the first scene which shows Lal searching for Unni as he moves around in an auto and the next scene shows the blasts with a news reader announcing that they were triggered by an unclaimed bag in an auto and sounding a caution to be careful of strangers -too much of an obvious inference. The zooming in of the kitchen knives when he opens the cupboard and the pressure cooker noise are clich├ęd devices and one wonders at the naivety of the script in creating such scenes.

Lal is, fortunately, in his zone here and brings to life a character with an almost split personality like behaviour. His disorderly whimsical behaviour is disturbing and creates a sense of uneasiness. He carries an almost psychotic like tendency - the character is raw and brusque in one moment and almost childlike in another - which makes it difficult for us to judge his character. He clearly is the movie’s biggest strength and ensures that he rises above the pitfalls in the script.

Malayalam cinema has good bench strength when it comes to supporting characters and has often provided memorable cameos by the supporting cast; but, Blessy fails to create any such character. While Suresh Menon is adequate, Muralikrishnan (Bharat Gopi’s son) is underutilized (his character needed more meat). You leave the theatre and the rest of the cast remains in oblivion, without any impact.

This movie could very easily have originated in the director’s mind, after seeing Bharathan-MTs classic Thazhvaram (undoubtedly, among the best of Malayalam cinema in its genre and an ode to Western Classics) but the inspiration seems to have been lost somewhere, in the midst of all the rumbling and mumbling of the travel that the characters undertake through the hills. While Thazhvaram was taut, tense and thrilling, Bhramaram is loose, jerky and bumbling in its implementation. For a so-called Road Thriller, I ask where is the uneasiness and tension here?

The songs are good and hummable and while they do not have any impact, they do not disturb the flow. Watching Bhramaram and Calcutta News has acted as a reality check – Blessy may be inspired by Padmarajan and Bharathan but there’s a clearly a long way to go. The Masters are way ahead and the disciple is clearly in wilderness, trying to find his way but unsure of the path to be taken. Mind you, the movie by itself is definitely worth watching but with Blessy at the helm, the expectations are definitely much higher and that is what lets it down the most.

The film stays in our mind and provides a great relief after seeing Lal doing stupid films like SAJ and many others that have forced many of his fans to abandon him. However, if you want to watch a thriller this year, I’d still suggest trying Ranjith Shankar’s Passenger, which makes a quiet impact, without any superstar fireworks.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Invisible Worker

I was born in a sleepy little village called Elapully in Palakkad and for the first 2.5 years of my life, lived a rustic unfettered existence in the care of my grandparents, looked after by a motley group of characters you’d find present in any Sathyan Anthikad drama. This group included maids and servants who had served our family for generations, shepherds, small time workers and so many others who brought joy to my first couple of years on earth.

After moving to Hyderabad later on, I became an annual visitor, spending all my summer vacations there and over a period of time, all these people were alienated from my sense of existence. They remained merely caricatures in my memory as people who had served our family for years. I had matured – my education had created insurmountable barriers between myself and these people. The class barrier suddenly became so obvious – the people who were playmates and companions in my early childhood had now become mere plebeians in my eyes.

Modern education and the economic changes in India since the 90s have broken many of the differences that arise due to vast differences in the working class. Caste is almost of no relevance in the modern age, except possibly when it comes to marriage. Religion is, of course, a much bigger thorn but as we work in a 24x7 environment, these barriers have broken and to quite an extent, office life (at least in the private sector) is bereft of too many caste and religious issues. It has created a class of people who can make money and learn to discriminate economically – the class rules roost here.

We all have maids or other servants (for want of a better word) who work 7 days a week in our houses. They do not have any PF/Gratuity and are not normally entitled to any official leaves. We do not care for them but the day they are absent, mind you, all hell breaks loose. Would you be surprised how many people do not even know the name of the people working in their houses or have any idea about their families? Now in a normal corporate scenario, that would not be a very endearing HR thought, right?

According to a study, "Invisible Servitude: An in-depth study of domestic workers in the world", by an organisation called Social Alert, there are an estimated 20 million women, children and men in domestic work in India. Of these, 92 per cent are women, girls and children, 20 per cent are under 14 years of age and 25 per cent are between the ages of 15 to 20. In Mumbai alone, this study (released in March 2000) estimated that there were six lakh domestic workers of whom 80,000 are full-time (http://www.indiatogether.org/2003/sep/ksh-domestic.htm).

Is the servant culture something which is against the spirit of humanity and equality? There are thousands of Indian homes where such a "servant culture" prevails – the kids grow up never picking up their clothes, never washing their clothes, never doing any work except eating, perhaps reading and definitely watching television. Aren’t we breeding a secondary class of citizens at our homes by allowing such a culture in our homes?

I think it was an article by Kalpana Sharma which made me realise that I did not know the name of my maid. I found it out but I still could not bring myself to ask her that – wouldn’t be an admission of my lack of concern for her? I know it is shameful but sometimes, we just do not realise the importance of these people who toil for us every day with no great incentive in life. After all, being employed as a menial worker or maid is not anyone’s idea of working oneself up the hierarchy.

A culture of servitude is being fostered upon each generation and it is important that parents realise that it is this upbringing that creates future class related schisms in our lives. We see a lot of youngsters working in Mumbai and elsewhere who bring home grown servants to work at their place. These are generational servants who have for years led lives where the only karma they have is working for their masters.

Servants have an invisible presence in our lives - a presence we have all learnt to take for granted. Everybody always complains about how lazy or unreliable their servants are and are very careless in passng judgements about them. In most Indian homes, servants may not eat the same food as their employers; forget the idea of even sitting together on the sofa or table. They do extensive labour and are routinely made to do extra chores for no extra pay.

Maids are excluded from labour laws – it is the informal sector and does not come under any legal scanner. The result of this exclusion is for everyone to see - long hours, bad pay, inhuman treatment, physical and sexual harassment. Since they are not even recognized as workers, there is no legal protection for them under Indian labour laws; they can only go to a criminal court.

Most of us, knowingly or inadvertently, tend to treat domestic workers as inferior beings. Many of us educated liberals have questioned this attitude in ourselves and attempted to be more democratic, but class notions are too deeply rooted in our culture to ward them off so easily. So, while we feel pained at the capitalistic society that cares two hoots for menial and blue collared workers, we remain totally oblivious to the people who work at our own place.

Unfortunately, the issue is not such a simple one – it is a fact that the haves will run the world and the have nots will have to submit to them. When the labour is in surplus and employment is limited, this remains an unrecognized industry that sustains and feeds a large number of people. But it is imperative that we also recognize the value of human life here - every human being deserves respect and it is upto us to ensure that we practice it and inculcate it in our children.

The laws alone cannot deal with this problem - constitution can only set laws but attitudes cannot be legislated. They say a society is measured by how it treats its most vulnerable. And I dare so, we are not earning any laurels on this front!!!

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Frost/Nixon

The poster of Frost/Nixon had adorned the walls of PVR Goreagaon under the section “Next Change” for close to six months till it was finally removed. I had waited in vain to see this Academy Award nominated movie but could not and so finally, I downloaded the movie last week and I am glad that I actually did that – it made my day.

Frost/Nixon is a movie based on a play by the same name written by Peter Morgan which chronicles the series of televised Frost/Nixon 1977 Interviews that former US President Richard Nixon granted David Frost and that ended with a tacit admission of guilt regarding his role in the Watergate scandal.

The movie begins with Richard Nixon stepping down after the infamous Watergate scandal and David Frost (more known in India as the presenter of The Guinness Book of World Records) wrapping up an episode of his talk show and watching on television, the resignation of the President. Frost calls up the Nixon team and discusses the possibility of extracting a detailed interview with the President.

The power of the visual medium can never be downplayed and both the players knew it just too well. Nixon owed his Presidential loss to Kennedy primarily to the first general election presidential debate conducted on television - though he scored in the debate on radio, he appeared haggard and sick in front of a young and charismatic JFK on TV and this made all the difference in the close race. Frost enjoyed these situations and truly understood Television and the power of TRPs. He realized that getting the ex-President to confess on TV was an eye ball popping spectacle and the Americans wanted to see that, especially after Nixon escaped through an unconditional pardon by his successor, Gerald Ford.

Nixon’s camp deftly brokers a deal for the interviews for a record prize of $600,000, partly so that he can redeem his reputation by presenting his side to the public and also partly because they reckon that Frost is a lightweight celebrity interviewer and intellectually too inferior to dictate terms. Frost tries to get in networks to finance his deal but he does not make a breakthrough;he, however, decides to go ahead with the deal by putting in a third of the money from his own pockets.

The Interviews are scheduled to be conducted in the form of four 90 minute shows, spread over a period of a few days and covering the following topics –Domestic Affairs, Foreign Policy, Watergate and Nixon the man. Frost hires two investigators, Bob Zelnick and James Reston Jr. to dig for information along with his producer-friend Birt, mainly on the Watergate scandal.

For the Frost camp, it is an uphill task right from when it starts. He is overconfident, greatly under prepared and is more at home being a benign talk show host, interviewing celebrities rather than grilling politicians. He also spends a great deal of time trying to raise funds for the show and focuses less on the research required for the part. Frost’s team grows desperate as Nixon sidetracks Frost, embarks on endless digressions, evades points and falls back on windy anecdotes, almost ridiculing Frost’s assumptions that he would be able to trap the President. He plays mind games with Frost - wondering about the expenses involved in the production, if his shoes aren't effeminate, whether he did any fornication and more such talk.

In the words of a Nixon aide, “Well, in boxing, you know that there’s always that first moment and you see it in the challenger. It’s that moment that he feels the impact from the champ; it’s a kind of a sickening moment when he realizes that all those months of pep talks and the hype and the psyching yourself up had been delusional all along. You could see it in Frost’s face. If he didn’t know the caliber of the man he was up against before the interview started, he certainly knew it halfway through the president’s first answer.”

This goes on for almost eleven sessions, till the story sets into motion through a drunken phone call from Nixon to Frost where he tells him that they both know the final interview will make or break their careers. If Frost fails to implicate Nixon definitively in the Watergate scandal, then Frost will have allowed Nixon to revive his political career at Frost's own expense, who will have an unsellable series of interviews and be bankrupt.

This spurs Frost to ensure that the final interview – the Watergate section – is successful. He and Reston do their homework well and the final interview turns out be an almost emotional thriller where Frost pins him down and extracts an admission of guilt, cover up and acting illegally from the President. It is almost extraordinary to hear such comments:

Frost: Are you really saying that whether in certain situations, the President can decide whether it is in the best interests of the nation and then do something illegal?
Nixon: I'm saying that when the President does it,that means its not illegal. That's what I beIieve but I reaIize no one eIse shares that view.

The phone call acts as a turning point in the movie but this is supposedly only a directorial flourish and not an actual event. But to the viewers, it probably presents a concrete reason why these two individuals have gambled their reputations to come together. Nixon is a lonely, embittered man who has been abandoned by the American public and wants reestablish his reputation and exert some control over his tarnished legacy; Frost is a little wannabe playboy type journo who wants to get into the Big League and make a name for himself.

The film does not demonize Nixon; instead it paints him as a man who’s made a historic blunder and knows that he has to live with it for the rest of his life. His redemption, is therefore, only superficial – the millions may look at him in a different light if the interviews are actually successful but the truth is something that is deep inside him. It is quite possible that one of the reasons for him agreeing for the interview is to actually admit his culpability in the crime. Frank Langella is brilliant as a brooding Nixon, who knows that he was once upon the time, the most powerful man in the world, but who is now reduced to an ignominious figure licking his wounds.

In comparison, Frost comes across as a showy but meek journalist who is more of a performer rather than an investigator. He is driven by the idea of creating headlines and is lost in the complex world of political intrigue. He receives a royal hammering for most of the part till he delivers a final knock-out blow in the last recording. Michael Sheen has a flashy presence and is eminently likable but clearly he is No.2 in this rather “unequal contest”.

After having seen Milk and Frost/Nixon, I am puzzled by what the Oscars and the rest of the West saw in awarding Slumdog Millionaire? What should have been a straight one-to-one duel between these 2 movies for the top honours was reduced to cakewalk in favour of Slumdog. It’s a pity because most of India has probably not seen these 2 movies, overshadowed by the hype of the Slumdog.

Just a wild thought - how about an an Indian version on this– maybe a Thapar/Modi? Fascinating, eh??