Sunday, September 26, 2010

Pranchiyettan & The Saint

The last time Malayalees fell in love with the musical Thrissur accent in cinema was when Mohan Lal’s Jayakrishnan drenched us in the rains of Thoovanathumbikal. Now, more than 20 years later, Mammootty, unassumingly brings to life a rich businessman in Thrissur who wants to create a name for himself but always fails ('oru vedanikkunna kodeeshwaran'). Director Renjith, who is emerging as something of a dark horse for ailing Malayalam cinema, creates a language and cinema that is innovative, funny and at its satirical best.

Chirammal Enashu Francis (Aripranchi or Pranchiyetta as he is known by all) ails from a rich family that is traditionally into the business of selling rice. But he has an inferiority complex about the fact that he is not that educated. And so Pranchiyettan hankers for social acceptance. He expands into jewellery, construction, finance and other businesses but is unable to shake of his name as a rice merchant.

With the help of Vasu Menon (Innocent), he makes multiple attempts to buy easy fame but all come to nought till he eventually accepts the futility of it. His interactions with Padmashree, an interior decorator who paints the walls of his house as well as his heart and Pauli, a wayward kid who is in danger of failing his Class X exams, finally give him a destination in life.

The movie deals with Pranchiyettan’s identity crisis and his need to find meaning in life –he believes that people’s respect is what will satisfy him and he is willing to resort to unscrupulous ways to buy that respect. He competes in a local club election but is defeated; he arranges a felicitation for the Oscar award-winner Gafoor Chekutty, but his presence is relegated to the backstage. He is not someone who helps others for the sake of respect but wants to get noticed for the good work that he has done in the society (he even keeps receipts of all these donations as an evidence of the help done!!!).

In a mockery of the Indian system of doling out awards to willing buyers, he tries to buy his way to a Padma Shri by bribing a few middlemen. His name eventually features in the recommendation of the State list of Chhattisgarh (!!!) but despite the promises, he is cheated out of the award. The scene where Pranchi and team try to create a profile for him to justify the award is brilliant – it starts with the various attempts to eulogize his character and ends with the profile writer stating that the difference between winning and buying an award is akin to the satisfaction of earning money vis-à-vis the fear of losing one’s money.

Pranchiyetta is a shrewd businessman but not exactly worldly wise; he is smart enough to win land deals but he has blind faith in people and is taken for ride by many – the politicians who swindle him of the money he spends to get a Padma Shri, the auto driver who uses his friend’s son as a bait to make some fast money and many others who come to him regularly to borrow money on some pretext or the other.

He has his own complexes owing to his lack of education and smartness. He loses his girlfriend, Omana (played by Renjith regular Khushboo) in school to a classmate Jose (Siddique) and they get married later on, adding to his agony. His relationship with the these two characters is interesting –Dr Jose reminds him of his failings in love and education but it is still a love-hate relationship which does not create any stress in their lives. Even when Pranchi’s driver tries to provoke Jose by telling him that Omana has come to see Pranchi in mysterious circumstances, he waves away any suggestions of suspicion.

There is an openness in the relationship between his ex-girlfriend Omana and Pranchi. Pranchi is still troubled by seeing his Omana with her husband but they are still close enough to confide in each other, without any hesitation. Recall Omana talking about her husband willing to do anything to win and how Pranchi says he still finds it uneasy when he sees the couple. Omana remains a good friend and introduces Padmashree to Pranchi, recognizing his naive and honest heart.

Padmashree’s relationship with Pranchi is clear to the viewer but their background romance is highly understated and it would have helped if Renjith has built in more meat into their relationship. Does she love him or is she grateful to him? We do not know because the story is seen from Pranchi’s eyes only. Her feelings for him are not shown to us till the end and even then, it looked an attempt to tie the loose ends and not a convincing finale.

Renjith loses a bit of his focus in the second half especially during the time Jagathy makes his appearance as a Gandhian school teacher, who tries to teach the young Pauli. The transition from the first half to second half is slightly off-track here and you have two different tales being told – Padmashree and Pauli – in the movie but these two characters are like two chapters in a book, being read at different points of time, without a fluidity of context.

Though Padmashree is his leading lady, Renjith puts in more effort to weave Pauli’s plot into the narration. Pauli’s inability to pass the exam is understandable and Pranchi’s affection towards him builds up gradually. His initial obsession to make him clear his X exams is replaced later on with an understanding of the ground realities. Pauli’s troubled life at home brings him closer to the kid and helps him in taking his final decision on the boy’s future.

Renjith brings in the Divine Touch here again as in Nandanam through the character of St. Francis - a delightful cameo by an Australian theatre actor Jesse Fox Allen (with voice over by Renjith himself), who slips into the Thrissur accent to allay fears of his devotee. However, unlike Guruvayurappan in Nandanam, the saint has no active role in the proceedings; he is a listener and a device that Renjith uses to move across chapters in Pranchi’s life. But the saint gets to mouth the dialogue that had the audience in splits - he mocks at the Malayalis’ propensity to grab anything and stand in any queue as long it is free. He asks anyone who goes to Velankanni or Guruvayoor to pray on his behalf so that he can receive the Lord’s blessings without making an effort (My translation sucks big time, I agree).     

Now, we do not know for sure whether the three visions of Pranchi at the end are true or if he's actually seen the saint but these are his visions which help him to understand his destiny. They help him forget his past misgivings and build a new future, in the company of Pauli and hopefully Padmashree. There is no great transformation that happens as the movie closes; Pranchi still seeks fame (he tells Pauli that only if he had seen the saint, he would have had a witness) but there is an acceptance of life’s uncertainties now and that is the real victory.

The Thrissur accent helps in adding humour in the dialogues but thankfully, the accent is not overbearing as in Chattambi Nadu or Rajamanikyam. With the exception of Jagathy’s forced humour, most of the characters are restrained and the director does not give into the temptation of using caricatures as in many comedies – the satire crackles under his pen and the characters simply deliver as per the script. So, even minor players like the driver, the cook and the politicians leave a mark. Mammootty as Pranchiyettan delivers a performance that is at once warm and naive – you love the simplicity of the man and even when he tries to be unscrupulous, you cannot loathe him.

A movie like Pranchiyettan &The Saint gives us a reason for celebration because it takes us back to a time when writing was an integral part of the film. Renjith serves us a fun-filled satire with his potshots on religion, politics and moral values in the society but takes care not to be preachy – a trap a lesser director could have fallen when dealing with saints and simpletons. The humour is in the writing and there is not even a slightest hint of slapstick fun here – many of Pranchi’s dialogues are funny but they are not contrived even the slightest bit (notice how effortless it is when he asks Padmashree whether the painting she brought as a gift is a left over from the art gallery sales or why the painting is drawn with the person’s back facing the image).

After Kaiyoppu, Thirakatha, Paleri Manikyam and now Pranchiteyyan & The Saint, it is time we sit up and wait for every Renjith movie that emerges out of his pen now. Hopefully, the slam-bang movies and fiery dialogues made famous by him are now a thing of the past….

***When we watched the movie in PVR-Goregaon on Saturday evening, the movie was met with applause. Now, that is something that should gladden the hearts of Renjith and all fans of good cinema.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Being Realistic About Kashmir

More than 100 civilians have been killed in the last 3 months as Kashmir boils in a fury that we have not seen in recent times. There is a clear revolt in the streets of the Valley and we must face it – it is not a Pakistani plot but led by enraged young men and women. No party has any idea on how to quell the violence and the state bleeds as violent protests and demonstrations paralyze it. The National Conference demands autonomy, the Congress prefers status quo (something that Narasimha Rao had elevated to an art) while BJP wants to crush the revolt.

Omar Abdullah has not gained any brownie points for his governmental incompetence – but seriously, would changing the Chief Minister make any difference? When the State is besieged by rebellions throughout the year and the administration is left to the army, can the CM change things? You could argue that only a man in touch with the Kashmiri common man can make a difference; but then this is just as true for any political leader in this country. Those who think that Farooq Abdullah would have done a better job, better think twice – are we talking about one of the men who was responsible for the 1987 poll rigging in Kashmir, a turning point in its politics?

Everyone knows the history of Kashmir – the fact that state which may have become independent or part of Pakistan is now in India primarily because Maharaja Hari Singh agreed to cede to India in order to protect his kingdom from Pakistani tribal warlords. But that was 63 years back and we still have not been able to resolve the Kashmir issue that rocks every conference where India and Pakistan try to sit and talk to each other. No one has a magic wand to resolve it and all the smart alecs who talk about giving solutions are living in a fool’s paradise.

The Government’s announcement of 50,000 jobs and the creation of a panel to study the creation of more jobs are small efforts that are taken with a pinch of salt in the Valley. The economic package will only work with a proper political one but then India has never won any fans for its dismal and insensitive handling of provincial challenges. The strategy never changes – whether it is Kashmir, North-East or Punjab; the Centre props up a few leaders, buys or bullies its way through other factions and finds itself in a position where it is stuck in a Catch-22 situation.

The 2002 elections were a starting point of a change in the ground realities in Kashmir. Elections were held and there was wide participation by the people; the extremist groups slowly started losing their hold on the masses and there was a hope that moderate groups like the Hurriyat can be brought into the administration. Negotiations with moderates like Sajjad Lone, Yasin Malik and Mirwaiz Farooq were attempted but all this has come to nought in the past couple of years. New Delhi must take most of the blame for dilly-dallying and not doing enough to rope in moderates and allowing hardliners like Geelani to call the shots once again.

Currently, the biggest stumbling block is the controversial AFSPA – the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA), which was passed on September 11, 1958. It conferred special powers upon armed forces in "disturbed areas" in the states of North-East and was later extended to Jammu and Kashmir in July 1990. The Defence establishment is not very keen on repealing this abused act and though most political parties (except the BJP) are keen to repeal it or at least dilute it in Kashmir, no decision has been taken on it.

AFSPA was meant to be used under special conditions but unfortunately, a draconian act like the Act can never serve its purpose for long. There is no doubt that the AFSPA is the biggest obstacle in trying to bring immediate peace – we must do away with it in totality or at least gradually – and release important political prisoners. Today’s Kashmir is not what it was in the 90s – foreign influence is on the wane and the state election turnout has been very positive. Kashmir needs a proper civilian government and the government has to be run through proper political administration and not by the military.

The State police force needs to handle the ground job and get the army only to protect its borders. The Armed Forces are not equipped to handle law and order problems and you cannot justify using them against your own people. As the death toll rises in clashes between the armed forces and the protesters, witness the reaction to other protests like the Jats going berserk in Haryana. They did much more damage than the stone pelters in Kashmir but no army was brought in; it was left to the police to settle things and there were no deaths reported due to police firing.

In the last one year, India has lost ground majorly and allowed separatists to make a comeback. Knee-jerk reactions like banning SMSs, pre-paid mobile connections, media and cable channels will only increase the burning rage; the State must learn to respect the civil society and safeguard its rights. Today, there are powerful forces demanding a trifurcation of the main regions of the state – Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh – into separate administrative units but this is dangerous.

While the onus is primarily on the State and Central Government to understand the Kashmir psyche, it is also high time for Kashmiris to be realistic about their options. Are choices like independence, autonomy or alignment with Pakistan workable?

Azaadi is a utopian dream; there is no way any self-respecting country can relinquish land mindful of the geographical and political complexities of the place. Kashmiris would be foolish to believe that they can survive independently surrounded by India, China and Pakistan. Independence will only encourage the likes of Taliban to try to wrestle their way through to occupy the Valley, with tacit support of Pakistan and China, thus creating another Afghanistan like situation. Kashmir is not about the majority Muslims alone; ask the minority Kashmiri Pandits (who have been victims of ethnic cleansing making them homeless) and Sikhs and they would be happier to be aligned with India.

Bad governance is a malaise that is present everywhere in the country. Police excesses, administrative apathy and corruption have corroded India everywhere and this is not a Kashmir specific problem. The Indian bureaucracy has treated Kashmiris no better and no worse than they’ve treated the rest of India. Will throwing out the Indian element of the administration cure that? I doubt that.

Autonomous Kashmir can be a way out but then isn’t the Indian Government answerable to the rest of the nation too? If Kashmir can be autonomous, why not Tamil Nadu or Manipur or Gujarat? Historical and cultural differences are hardly significant to treat Kashmir separately – those reasons are applicable to just about any other state in India. Doesn’t Article 370 give Kashmir a special significance which we don’t have? Kashmiris need to be convinced that they are governed by somebody from among them and not a candidate whose strings are being pulled by the Centre. What we need is greater decentralization and that is the need in every state and not just Kashmir but again this is not specific to Kashmir alone; local level empowerment and devolution of power can help in making a more federal India.

Aligning with Pakistan is not a very popular option now even for Kashmir. PoK is miles away from any autonomy while Mohajirs are second class people in Pakistan. Hardliners like Alam Bhat and Asiya Andrabi may want to be a part of Pakistan but they are perceived by most Kashmiris as fundamentalists who do not understand Kashmir and its soul. But the political environment is changing; the pan-Islamic identity of the Kashmir struggle is slowly gaining ground. In the last 2 years, the moderates find themselves more and more sidelines and separatist leaders like Geelani have started calling the shots again.

Historical prejudices are hard to resolve but then if we start trying to correct every perceived historical wrong, there is no end to it. LoC is a reality that we better accept; there is no scope for ambiguity – Kashmir is an integral part of India and this is the only way forward. Improving on the existing reality is critical but ignoring the very ground reality is foolishness...

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