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Sunday, December 18, 2011

Beautiful



Anoop Menon has a fascination for moral anarchy and his movies stretch the elasticity of marriage before releasing it just at the end to allow the institution to survive the stress of the demands on it. Just as an unmarried Stephen Louis (Jayasurya) questions the sanctity of relationships in his column in the women’s magazine he writes for, eligible bachelor Anoop Menon probes it on the larger screen – both of them have the benefit of objectivity while looking at it.

Mohan Lal in Pakal Nakshatrangal is extremely callous and skeptical about relationships, Anoop Menon in Cocktail looks for fun outside marriage while Jayasurya in Beautiful knows that he has no future in a marriage and Praveena suggests that ‘marriage is just a license for an extra-marital affair’.

Stephen Louis is a lonely millionaire who does not allow his physical limitations to undermine his state of mind. He spends most of his life on a wheelchair and knows that the people around him only care for his wealth but reckons that this wealth ensures that he has nothing to worry about. He does not ask for any sympathy and is content to enjoy the beauty of life in his own puckish and voyeuristic style, impishly smiling his way through it.

A chance encounter with a struggling artiste John (Anoop Menon) in a restaurant draws Stephen to him. John needs money to finance his music album and sister's education and he is willing to play the role of a singer-cum-friend but soon, they manage to cement a deep friendship. Their idyllic life goes on without ripples until the beautiful Anjali (Meghna Raj) appears on screen.

And what an appearance she makes! As Stephen and John watch Jayakrishnan visualizing the wet and beautiful frame of Clara amidst heavy rain and Johnson’s haunting music in the immortal Thoovanathumbikal, a rain-drenched Anjali makes an appearance on the screen that leaves them gaping in wonder at the sight of this enticing seductive woman. No words are exchanged and the silence says it all and the director breaks off for the interval followed by a funny reference to the song Anjali Anjali. Picture perfect!!!  

Stephen and John share a wonderfully unique chemistry that is brought to life by the humour in the script. If Thoovanathumbikal brings Anjali, the director uses Sholay to welcome John into his life. The need for such a friendship is conveyed but there are no great words exchanged – it is simply implicit. 

Their lives are a perfect contrast – a carefree differently abled millionaire who has no qualms about what the future has in store for him and a struggling artist who is worried about an uncertain future. One man’s need for company is matched by the other’s need for money but over a period of time, the relationship grows multi-fold and John is reluctant to tap his friend for his fiscal problems. Stephen demands no sympathy and is keen to love life in the company of somebody who can be trusted but John has his own demons to be exorcised.

Now this may have been a melodramatic tear-jerker or even a feel good story of touching friendship but the plot takes a quick turn towards the end turning into a crime caper. The movie has an airiness of a dark, quirky little short story set in a remote little town in Europe. Now transport this backdrop to Kochi and visualize the plot and it works quite well (the feel of a Coen Brothers film sans the violence). 

The climax arrives quite suddenly reminding me of the Hitchcock classic Rope where the whodunit mystery is unraveled in the spur of the moment. (I am not comparing it to any Hitchcock movie but simply recording what I felt while watching the climax). However the film sputters when it tries to manufacture motives for different characters to commit a crime. The director makes a deliberate attempt to mislead the audience by playing up the troubles of the surrounding cast and their actions but this is not convincing. But to be fair to VK Prakash, the whodunit part is not the most important part of the narrative but just a culmination of events that drive the plot that far.

Beautiful lives up to its name as we soak in the splendor of a world that is extremely beautiful. The camera repeatedly stares at Stephen’s spotlessly white mansion which is lashed frequently by the spraying rain; John lives in a furniture shop but the interiors have a classy feel, the lens lingers lovingly over a ravishing Anjali accentuating her beauty, the music wafts gently on the surface (lyrics by Anoop himself) and the rain sweeps across unhurriedly creating an atmosphere that is at once dark but blissful.

It rains incessantly in the movie but the rain is not a disturbance, it builds the atmosphere gently and creates an aura of lush emotions which are unexplored and gentle (whether it is Stephen experiencing rain for the first time or when it caresses Anjali as it comes down). This external beauty is however in contrast to the moral ambiguity of its characters who have their own dilemmas and compulsions in life which mars their beauty.

The movie is sensuous but the sensuousness lurks in the background and the camera does not play Peeping Tom. Witness the scene where Anjali takes bath; we hear the sounds of the door opening and closing and the water splashing, coupled with a brilliantly rendered dialogue (Nee kulichivo da..illa..Njanum kulichitilla..Aval kuli thodangi...). Or when Stephen stares in anticipation at the maid Kanyaka (Tesni Khan in a nice little cameo) mopping the floor, the song Poykayil from Rajashilpi plays on the TV screen; no skin show or double meaning dialogues is used but the intensity of the male desire is conveyed effortlessly.

Beautiful is beautifully written and there is no torrential downpour of words when a drizzle is needed (in contrast to The Dirty Picture); infact, it is quite economical with words. Short pauses, lingering music and a moody background showcase the emotions. John and Anjali share very few words and even when he proposes, it is an abrupt on the spot reaction that is unanticipated. John, Anjali and Stephen form an odd little alliance, with sexuality bursting at its seams and when it finally ruptures at the end, there is a certain irreverence in the way it is accepted.

Through Beautiful, Anoop Menon cocks a snook at morality in Kerala, without being too judgmental. In his own words – ‘There are people who are still strung to obsolete principles of morality, about what should be welcomed and what should be ostracized. But we too have changed with time and the average Malayali too is aware of the switch in social scenario. The Malayali who has read OV Vijayan and VKN knows about all the shades of life. Only a minority sticks to the format of primordial morality and the rest are ready to face life as it is. For me Beautiful is a revolt against the moral norms set by this minority.’

Beautiful is yet another New Generation Malayalam movie, continuing the trend of  Traffic, Salt N’Pepper and Chappa Kurishu – movies that are creating a new grammar in Malayalam cinema..Does the redemption of Malayalam cinema lie in its youth and urban roots?

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

The Dirty Picture



There is a scene in The Dirty Picture when Reshma urf Silk tells her bĂȘte noire director Abraham that movies sell only because of three reasons - ‘Entertainment, Entertainment and  Entertainment’. It is a dialogue that probably symbolizes what director Milan Luthria has in mind when he creates this supposed biopic that would have unraveled the phenomenon called ‘Silk Smitha’.

The Dirty Picture is supposed to be India’s answer to Boogie Nights (atleast that’s what Ekta Kapoor would like us to believe) but it limits itself to Silk's ascent. The movie invests in entertainment – it has loads of punch lines which ensures that every minute the audience has something to holler about and Vidya Balan has the chutzpah to carry out the role with aplomb. But beyond the entertainment, it fails to create an emotional connect to the character – her tragedy is a private one (just like in real life) and it’s a pity that while the director takes interest to show her rise to the top, he is not too keen to help us understand the decline. It’s a bumpy fall that happens suddenly and no explanations are sought – the audience is expected to understand that what goes up comes down one day.

The difficulty of making a movie that speaks in one language and telling a story in another creates an identity crisis. It’s worth wondering whether the movie had to be based in Tamil Nadu when the only thing that seemed Tamil were the posters, hoardings, costumes of the supporting cast and junior artists while all the main characters seemed to revel comfortably in Hindi (the way names like Muthu and Selvaganesh are pronounced is annoying).The movie speaks in Hindi (and I don’t mean the dialogues) and exudes the language in all references which are divorced from the realities of what you see on the screen.

Since a decision was made to base it in the South, the movie attempts to create the the Tamil tinsel world of the 80s. But Milan is not interested in depicting reality; you see it is entertainment that he is after. So, what emerges is essentially Bollywood cloaked in the guise of Tamil cinema and the result is a mishmash that purely entertains. Stereotypes abound and caricatures role the roost but Silk is an exception; she sounds impeccable even in English despite her not so urbane background. Suryakanth (Naseeruddin Shah) is an aging superstar with numerous amorous escapades who looks like a wannabe Quick Gun Murugan and fits to the T perceptions of superstars from the south (Exactly the same issue that I had in the buffoonish depiction of the principal in The 3 Idiots).

Since the movie would be seen primarily by an audience not familiar with the backdrop, it may not matter as a whole. But I’m amused when someone in the audience finds ‘Selvaganesh’ a funny name while someone else thinks that the hero is modeled on Rajinikanth (for no apparent reason but his gun fighting scene). When you have painted all these men as caricatures whom the audience would love to mock at, is there any possibility of objectively analyzing Silk’s actions?

There is no way you can root for any other character and the director is clear that Silk and Silk alone matters in the movie, at the expense of others. When she launches into a tirade against the hypocrisy of people in a stage function, she is suddenly thrust into the role of an embodiment of a heroic woman who takes on the entire industry, which sits uneasily on her. Being brash and street smart maybe, but as a symbol of a victimized woman, it does not cut ice.

In a first half that encapsulates the rise of a plain but ambitious Jane into a starlet with an attitude that borders on arrogance, Vidya pulls of a casting coup and makes us want to believe that Silk actually traversed this path as she rode to the top. In a well-crafted scene, where the audience troops into the theatre just for her song and leaves the hall immediately afterwards, she realizes the hold that she could have on a sex-starved audience (this is immediately after the star Suryakanth tells her that the crowds only care for him and she has no relevance at all). She is gung-ho of her ability to draw audiences to the theatre by her asset display but at the same time realizes that being an actress is just a dream that is beyond her.

The potentially most interesting phase could have been between Silk and the avant garde director Abraham who detests her as somebody who represents everything that is wrong with commercial cinema. But their interaction is fleeting and while the chemistry works we do not know how the transformation happened? Where did the love angle come in suddenly? Is it when Abraham realizes that his cinema never connected to the masses (‘Mein apni hi picture dekhte so gaya') and compromises or was it just an after- thought that emerged when the director realized that Emraan’s character was going nowhere? It was an opportunity to explore this connect between these two persons who worked in two different spectrums of cinema and are separated by social and class perceptions of good and bad but sadly, this thread is left hanging.

The below-the-belt humour is funny but I was tired by the number of over written one-liners inserted in the plot. Why was it necessary to throw in a punch line every time a character spoke; can’t you have people talking normally, without always wanting to suggest something voyeuristic? Being subtle is clearly not the writer’s strength but there is a limit – was every alternate line in the script written in Comic Sans Font Bold and Underlined 36 Size font so that the audience understands that they are watching a Dirty Picture?

Vidya Balan puts in a brave performance that will win her awards (breaking stereotypical roles = winning awards) but the limitations of the script limit the scope of the performance. She learns the lessons of the trade quickly enough and leverages her abilities to the maximum – witness the brazen usage of her sexual power as she stalls the traffic at a journalist’s party. She’s Erin Brockovich magnified in the first half who loses steam after some time because she has nothing more to add; as she spirals rapidly downward (very rapidly in the movie), we are unable to empathize with her character. The cleavage and the boobage are there for people to leer at often (thankfully without being vulgar) but the soul of the performer is missing.

Yes, there are hints of financial problems, competition from other vamps and even other heroines but we are unable to sense the insecurity that she feels. Why does she torpedo a perfectly going life for no apparent reason? We do not invest in her emotionally, especially in the second half, to connect to her demise and so when the end comes, I’m busy looking at my watch rather nonplussed at the death. We know her as a brash uninhibited starlet who is not prone to strategizing but we don’t know her as a person; her fears, her turmoil, her loneliness and the things that would help us understand better are set aside to depict only an external manifestation of her problems.

The tragic life of Silk Smitha needed more attention but just as her screen presence was limited to only the fleeting lust value she gave in a movie, the movie merely skims over her true self. While people discreetly watch scenes that border on titillation (and we are not talking of men alone), we refuse to acknowledge it but are quick to paint these women as loose characters who have no place in our civilized society. Those who exhibit themselves to the audience are sluts but we are ‘honourable’ because we enjoy these only in the darkness. Well, this movie is about ‘entertainment’ and Silk as an entertainment object only, so the tragedy is lost somewhere deep inside..