Saturday, January 31, 2009

Luck By Chance - The Making of Success

The Hindi film industry got off to a lukewarm start in 2009 with the over-hyped ‘Chandni Chowk to China’, now threatening to derail Akshay Kumar’s style of comedy – where entertainment and comedy is confused with the perception of a dumb audience.

Luck by Chance, directed by Zoya Akhtar, with Farhan Akhtar playing the lead and Javed Akhtar wielding the pen for the dialogues and lyrics is money’s worth all the way. It wasn’t given a very wide publicity, the trailers were just ‘OK’ and the music seemed average. In spite of all this, the movie impresses for there are a number of things to be appreciated here.

When we start writing about movies, the risk is that there can be many views and many tastes. Some people want pure entertainment, some people want cinema as it should aspire to be, a mirror to the society and our way of life while some others want the right balance. Entertainment isn’t about “running around trees” alone and cinema to be commercially viable, shouldn’t demand an “intellectual” viewer. What ‘Luck by chance’ strives to achieve is the right balance.

It isn’t completely “realistic” and yet with its sincere writing and dialogues engages the viewer. Vikram (Farhan) and Sona (Konkona) are waiting for their big breaks in the land of thousand dreams – Bollywood. Their paths cross and they start liking each other, united by a common dream and nurturing mutual respect for each other’s talents. The nervous and insecure producer, the busy actor, the ever interesting crew of helpers and “manipulators”, the hints at casting couch, star parents and star daughters – one sees them all, the beauty is that they blend with the story in a rare unifying experience rather than being irritating side shows because they are the story itself and not costly embellishments.

Farhan, from the aspiring “nobody” progresses to become a charmingly “cute” fresh star, aided - as his teacher portends earlier - by luck’s generosity and his own hard work and skills of persuasive flattery. As he says, in one of the remarkable dialogues, sugar is indeed needed to sweeten up things. His object of praise is the star mother (Dimple Kapadia) of a “lucky” starlet. (Isha Sharwani)

The stereotypes are subtly shown. When the teacher says, heroines “too” need some skills to grow and when Sona in a display of understanding and disbelief, chides Vikram for failing to think about her own career – they stand out. Dialogues are the highlight with many of them carrying good impact.

The first half is the one when luck remains elusive. The last 5-10 minutes in the first half and towards the end of the movie prove beyond doubt how supremely talented an actor, Konkona is. She revels in the role. SRK, Aamir Khan, Ranbir Kapoor, Abhishek Bachchan, John Abraham, Diya Mirza and Kareena Kapoor play themselves and make fleeting appearances. Hrithik Roshan, Juhi Chawla and Rishi Kapoor have meaty parts and essay them with élan though Rishi and Juhi necessarily overplay as demanded. Isha Sharwani in playing the role of a girl, who can’t act, acts well.

The second half is clearly the better one when Vikram and Sona begin to doubt each other. Vikram doesn’t want to ruin his future when the heroine shows a keen interest in him. Sona is let down by the producer she trusts for too long and realizes her folly in the end.

The movie is a sincere attempt and deserves a hands-up. Only when such efforts are appreciated, can we look forward to see more noteworthy attempts. It deserves the 100 bucks I spent on it for the acting, direction and dialogues.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Tales of the Desert - Sad and Poignant...

Darfur, Sudan – We hear about it every now and then; we read about the conflict there in news papers and occasionally through the electronic media. UN Peace keepers, genocide – these are things that I have heard, spoken about, but not until reading ‘Tears of the Desert’ by Halima Bashir, I could have claimed some knowledge about the gravity of the situation.

This is a true story of one woman (Halima Bashir) who “survives” the “horrors” of Darfur. The book is organized into four parts – ‘Child of the desert’ about the experiences of growing up told beautifully from a young girl’s perspective, ‘School of the desert’ about the initial education and the nurturing of ambitious dreams, ‘Desert of fire’ about the life in university and the withering away of hope and ‘Desert of no return’ about the flight from the horrors of the conflict.

Non-Fictional accounts of cruel acts are disturbing. They make us realize how fortunate we are in comparison to the multitude whose only mistake is to have born in a conflict zone. We complain, crib and cry, but seldom do we appreciate the checks and balances guaranteed by our constitution.

Coming back to the book, the first few chapters are beautiful. In giving an account of the childhood games, the innocent village life of her tribe, the Zaghawa - described as “a fierce, warlike black African people who are the most generous and open in welcoming strangers” – and the sweet pleasures of growing up, occasionally, there are indications of impending gloom. Halima’s grand mother, in particular, will be in the reader’s memory for such is the degree of courage and conviction attributed to her. As she tries to adjust to the onslaught of the radio and TV, the reader is totally engrossed. The distinctions drawn between the tribes and the tales of the medicine woman engage the reader compellingly; they are telling.

As Halima starts going to school and moves away from her parents, she comes to terms with discrimination. Her love and respect for her father grow multifold. “The Arabs won’t make anything easy for us in this country…” says her father. To arm and fortify herself and to fulfill the dream of her father, Halima studies hard and wins her entry to medical course in the University in Khartoum.

There are some passages where one feels, the explanations and reasons could have been better, but I am tempted to put it down to a poor grasp of the history of the conflict. Halima enters university and after the first year, when plain clothes men come to recruit students for “Jihad”, her aspirations take a beating. But, the state of affairs doesn’t continue for long. Amid “rumors of war”, she completes her course and returns to a hero’s welcome to the village.

Her profession and posting brings her in contact with black African rebel fighters and true to her noble profession, she treats them. This lands her in trouble with the Government and soon enough, she finds that she has been posted to a village in the remote north of Darfur. There, she is witness to unspeakable horror when a group of Janjaweed men attack the local school and brutally rape 8-13 year old girls.

“Never, not even in my darkest, blackest nightmare, had I imagined that I would ever witness such horror. What was happening to my country? Where had all the love gone, the goodness, the humanity? Who had let the devil in and given him free reign?” – writes Halima. As she writes about what the men in khaki uniforms do to her, one wonders if such devilish rage and brutality has anything to do with humanity…

The devastation is complete when helicopters suddenly land in her village and it becomes a “vision of hell”. While the children, the old and the women hide in the forest, the men folk are slaughtered. At the end of this third part in the book, one feels emotionally drained and only with a huge effort can continue reading…

Halima is separated from her living kith and kin and manages to flee Darfur and land in London. Then, begins the account of the plight of the asylum seekers – countless people who are forced to flee their lands and search for safety in foreign and mysterious shores.

“Spring flowers were pushing through the grass, trees were in bud, but there was winter in my heart”.
After the media listens to her plight and to her horrific stories about her homeland, she decides to work on this book.

“During my darkest moments I concluded that for those who had died, life had perhaps dealt them the better hand – for the living have to live with the memories and the trauma every day, for the rest of their lives….For me, the scars run deep and will take many a year to heal”.

When I read about the conflict online, I realized that many stories of the World are conveniently ignored and certain nations can go to any extent to exploit natural resources and arm perpetrators of abominable crimes.

Read this book to know about such a story, a sad and poignant story that is known to us because of the bravery in the face of unimaginable odds, of a young woman.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Hazaron Khwaishein Aisi - Brilliant chronicle of a turbulent time!

"Not every story has a happily ever after, Vikram!" - Geetha played by Chitarangda Singh says during a lighter moment in this movie. Reality is indeed harsh and cruel and does not provide room to vent out every passion. History is seldom presented to interest the young; more often than not, it becomes a victim of the victorious and the governing...

Lucky are the boys and girls who learn history the way it ought to be learned; teachers and text books can do a lot more in this area. When they fail, it is up to movies and literature to fill in the void. How many of us know the import of the naxalite movement and the emergency? I don't remember reading it in my history texts. I however loved the manner in which Rohinton Mistry told a story of epic proportions set during the emergency.

Ever since hearing about it, I wanted to catch this movie and that wish got realized this weekend when after a discussion on Slumdog Millionaire with my friend, it veered towards हजारों ख्वाहिशें ऐसी. I have never been so moved by the way a movie can convey a story.

This movie is a story of three youngsters Vikram, Siddharth and Geetha played respectively by Shiney Ahuja, Kay Kay Menon and Chitarangda. Geetha and Siddharth like each other and Vikram likes Geetha. Siddharth is moved by the Naxalite movement and feels he can make a difference and bring a change in the "world order". Vikram dismisses this as worthless and is bent on amassing wealth and moving up the influential ladder. Geetha is torn between Siddharth and life's practicalities.

As Siddharth gets sucked in to the movement, he becomes just another participant and Geetha, caught in a marriage she begins to find increasingly uninteresting, abandons it and moves to a village in Bihar with Siddharth. As they navigate the turbulent times, Vikram moves up, yet he longs for his first love. He is ready to do anything for Geetha.

The movie does not try to educate the public, rather it shows how lives are affected by the times; how isolation and indifference are not easy choices to take. It is in this aspect that the movie towers and delivers. Its impact is as some critics have put, "hard-hitting". Some have went on to say that its a political epic. Both are true. It has been made not for the masses but for the discerning viewer who yearns for quality.

The strongly entrenched caste based subjugation, the authentic portrayal of rural India and the undercurrent of political relevance all along shine out. All the three central characters have done great justice to their characters with some finest acting. Director Sudhir Mishra who has co-written the movie, has delivered a gem. Though it would require some knowledge of the times in general, there is sufficient room to appreciate if the viewer is indulgent and receptive to detail.

The dialogues carry a lot of substance. When Siddharth says, "Because I am sick of people like you who sit and pontificate about India, its problems, the oppressive political and social systems and do nothing about it...", in response to a question on his motivation, his passion is all too evident. When later in the movie, he says,"The World hadn't changed in ways that I had wanted it to", its gravity is enormous. The same applies to Geetha when she says, "It is as if this place doesn't exist. Still, people here laugh some times".

Overpowering is the presence of Geetha whose solid characterization and stunning beauty will remain with the viewer long after the movie is over. Her struggle to come to terms with her own self is remarkable. Vikram's fall is very steep. The transformation of the youngsters from college to adulthood stands out for its authenticity. The music is very apt and the lyrics of the songs, especially the "Bavre mann dekhne chala ek sapna", exemplary.

I can go on praising...

It is a pity that the larger public wasn't able to appreciate a movie like this for all its worth. Yet, it will remain one of the finest achievements of Hindi cinema in the decade so far!

Monday, January 12, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire - A tribute to innocence!

The appeal of a movie lies in mirroring a society truthfully and providing food for thought. Of late, Bollywood has been trying to realize its potential. This movie sets the standard for our film makers to emulate.

Based on a novel, 'Q & A' by Vikas Swarup, this movie celebrates the innate good nature of the human spirit. Russian master Dostoevsky said "I cannot and will not believe that evil is man's natural state". After reading Mr. Adiga's 'The White Tiger', one would almost come to believe that "good" is the last thing on a poor slum dweller's mind. Slumdog Millionaire, having won 4 golden globes (for best motion picture, best director, best original score and best screenplay) is a simple story told in a most beautiful manner. I remembered another book - City of Joy - as I was watching the movie and cannot help but feel that abject poverty does not make devils out of human beings.

Coming back to the movie, it operates at different levels. At one level, it is the story of 3 children and how they struggle through life into adulthood. At another level, it is the triumph of the metaphoric good over evil, innocence over ruthlessness and scheming. It is also the story of the slum dweller - how unimaginably poverty-stricken and innocent a childhood, the children in the movie have. They are poor, but they partake of life's fragrances in their own sweet ways.

The first half of the movie stands out as it records the growth of the three children, one innocent and guileless, one forced by circumstances and hardened by life's challenges and the other child resigned and full of vibrant life. All the 3 child actors have done a remarkable job in this aspect. Traveling by trains and as guides, they steal the show. If one remembers the movie, it is largely because of their act where the innocence is established.

"If it wasn't for Ram and Allah, I would still have a mother.", says Jamal played by Dev Patel. It is loaded with meaning, capturing the futility and waste of human life when communal tensions and animosity run high.

The second half is just above ordinary, save for some brilliant dialogues that elevate the underdog. "When somebody asks me a question, I tell them the answer"! Irfan Khan is again impressive and acts his part effortlessly. Anil Kapoor looks the part and talks the part most importantly.

The touch of a brilliant director is in managing to make a simple scene excellent and the English director, Danny Boyle shows this all along. A.R Rehman stamps his class and authority and is now deservedly getting the due credit. As the momentum builds up towards the end, the viewer roots for the Slumdog and more than anything, wants the lead pair to unite. Freida Pinto, playing Latika emotes grief and incredible joy as demanded by the role.

If one thinks that, this is another movie made to showcase India's poverty to the west, one cannot be more mistaken. It is a sweet, tender triumph of human spirit and watch it to see India in all its colors. In the near future, its success story will be featured in many columns and I wish that more such movies are churned out...

Thursday, January 1, 2009

2008 - History would love it!!

2009 is in. As curtains are drawn on 2008, it would go down as one of those years that never ceased to surprise both on the domestic and on the international front in every aspect. This post is an attempt to summarize the year, its highs and lows, and what it means for India as a nation in 2009.

The American dream was kept alive and kicking. In the land of opportunities, few were surprised at the defeat of the republican candidate given the disastrous policies of George Bush. The young voted in huge numbers attracted by a charismatic leader who innovated in campaign style, whose mantra was taking everyone together with a “can do” spirit. It just happened that he is an African American and hence his election, a first of its kind. The World waits with bated breath for him to take complete charge and initiate the promised change. The signs are very encouraging though India waits for the Indian Obama in desperation.

Closer home, three countries embraced democracy after long periods of struggle. Nepal with Prachanda at the helm, Pakistan with PPP and very recently Bangladesh with Sheikh Hasina demonstrated clearly that it is better to have elected Governments than persistent misrule. It remains to be seen how the experiments play out – the threat of a military takeover looms large in at least two of these nations. How these nations engage with us diplomatically will decide and dictate key foreign policy initiatives. In the south, Sri Lanka remains dangerous with emotions running high.

Indian politics hit a string of lows with the “cash for votes” scandal rocking Parliament and the Government barely scraping through to survive. Opportunism and Vote bank – these dreaded products of coalition era politics took centre stage everywhere. From the Amarnath controversy to the positioning on the nuclear deal, this was evident all along.

Alliances were forged with erstwhile unimaginable partners. Ideology, if such a thing exists was lost somewhere in the mayhem. Parliament become a mockery with bills rushed through, debates lost in shouts and attendance thinned with every passing day. Nothing can repair the damage done and people’s faith in the elected representatives touched rock bottom in the last week of November. Politicians became inept at handling the media. RR Patil, Jaswant Singh, Shivraj Patil, VS Achuthanandan, Sheila Dikshit and countless others have set lofty standards to emulate.

The assembly elections left even the most seasoned political analysts hungry for more. Development and stability was the war cry of the voter. The rosiest picture is that of J&K and the turnout. It has resulted in a younger helmsman and expectations consequently run high. The upcoming Lok Sabha election is again a test for the Indian electorate. It is up to us to vote and vote right.

Our nation distinguished itself by not learning from mistakes. Floods and stampedes made headlines and the Government’s response was most predictable with commissions and inquiries. Existence has become a component of choice and good luck due to the spate of terror attacks across the country. Again displaying new heights of insensitivity, nothing was done until forcefully jolted into superficial action when 26/11 happened. By amending UAPA to incorporate POTA provisions save one and setting up a new agency, we run the risk of falling into the same trappings of short sighted action. Populist measures targeted to woo vote banks were the norm. The nuclear deal was a strange exception to the rule here. Pursued with a rare vigor, this will bear fruit in the future.

The courts gave landmark verdicts.Creamy layer cap, periodic review on reservation, the blurring lines on obscenity and freedom of expression, Mumbai blasts conviction - it was action packed. Judicial reforms and accountability did see some progressive steps and this would be most welcome in 2009.

Economy watchers found that they were not left with nails to bite. Recession, almost forgotten in the beginning of the year hit the US and in a globalized world, every country faces the heat now. No takers for exports; cut down in production; unwillingness to lend; diving stocks – disbelief could not be more quintessential. There is no magic wand to correct this and the immediate future looks bleak.

Course correction will need precious time and in the meanwhile, heart burns, pink slips and downward revisions might become increasingly common. Prices fluctuated and inflation threatened to derail some prospects during the assembly elections. Despite the gloom in the later part of the year, HCL and WIPRO flexed their muscles and emerged successful in their bargains. Thanks to the presence of a large domestic market, recession and its impact can be lessened in 2009.

In the literary scene, Arvind Adiga grabbed headlines though not many find his work authentic enough to deserve all the accolades. The spate of mediocre books continues with a rare gem here and there. If art and literature have to play their rightful role in influencing lives and inspiring the young, this situation is glaringly inadequate. 2009 urgently needs writers and artists of caliber and merit.

Falling victim to compulsions and situations, Tibet has gone on the backburner after surfacing during the Olympics. After witnessing the infrastructure on display, India can hardly hope to match China in organization and conduct of any sport in the future. Abhinav Bindra, Saina Nehwal, Sushil Kumar and Vijendar Singh broke into our living rooms thanks to their efforts despite the system. Sport and its infrastructure and encouragement continue to be low on the priority list.

On the cricket front, we had lots to cheer about. The conquest of T20, a young and confident side under an able and inspiring leader meant that two seniors quit in quick succession and no vacuum was felt. IPL reinvented the game and was a marketing innovation and crowd puller in every aspect changing the face of the game in profound ways.

Bollywood promised a lot and more than lived upto expectations. Aamir, Shaurya, A Wednesday, Mumbai Meri Jaan and Rock On wouldn’t have been possible without multiplexes and maturity in an audience that is thirsty for more. Low budget, good stories and some fantastic acting got due credit. Hence, it was a trendsetter of sorts. One hopes that the trend continues in 2009.

To conclude, the overpowering public mood in 2008 was that of resignation with individuals seldom demonstrating the rare ability to rise above surroundings. It was a year that threw up a lot of opportunities to introspect, learn from mistakes and correct course. This New Year begins with hope. As the popular belief goes, it shouldn’t gravitate towards resignation at dusk and “hopefully” won’t.