Lest this be your fate.
Lest this be your fate.
While not a mainstream Hindi movie, I thought I’d include a review here that I did a few months back of Deepa Mehta’s most recent film.
Water, the final film in director Deepa Mehta’s trilogy of the elements, proves to moviegoers that good things can come to those who wait.
The history of the making of the film is itself an epic saga. It took a total of seven years to bring the movie to screen. In 2000, just two days into filming in Varanasi, under the complaint that Mehta’s film was casting India and Hinduism in an unflattering light, violent protests, destruction of the sets and death threats by political and religious groups shut the production down. Four years later, after a patchwork of funding and a new cast were lined up, filming began again, this time in Sri Lanka, under an innocuous false title and tight secrecy. Mehta can consider herself vindicated, as the film was selected to open the Toronto International Film festival last September and has been garnering rave reviews since.
The movie opens with the main character, the eight-year-old girl, Chuyia, sitting in the back of a cart, chomping happily on sugar cane and being chastised for tickling the feet of the man stretched out next to her. We learn that the year is 1938, she is a child bride and her husband is dying. Uncomprehending and unperturbed, she sits blankly in the next scene while the now deceased man is cremated in Varanasi and her long, thick hair is shorn. Under the dark of night, her parents deposit her at a widows’ residence just off the banks of the Ganges, setting in motion a chain of events that leaves its mark on many lives, just as Gandhi’s influence at that time is having an effect across India.
When faced with the dire penury and restrictions the widows endure, the distraught child rebels. Some of the women are touched by her and take pity on her. Shakuntala (played by Seema Biswas, in the role that was to have been Shabana Azmi’s) is stern but kind, and she becomes a mother of sorts to Chuyia. Living upstairs, apart from the others, is Kalyani, played by the ethereal beauty, Lisa Ray, who has been allowed to keep her hair long because she is prostituted to wealthy clients across the river. She plays older sister to Chuyia, and her small garret serves as a refuge. The ashram is ruled by Madhumati – the physically imposing madam of the house (literally) – who can only see Kalyani as a unique revenue source. When she learns of Kalyani’s love for a young man, she does everything she can to thwart the union, first cutting off her hair, and then locking her up.
The love interest, Narayan, is played by John Abraham, who Mehta says she chose for his eyes and voice, and “because he could convey idealism and not be a wimp.” Narayan is a sensitive, thoughtful law graduate excited by the teachings of Gandhi. He questions everything that he cannot make sense of or accept: British rule in India, his mother’s wish that he marry soon just because of his age, and the treatment of widows. Narayan falls in love and is prepared to flaunt convention and his mother’s opposition to be with Kalyani, just as several threads of the story come together, with tragic results.
Of the three films in the trilogy, this is the strongest and most complete. While Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das (who is still not on speaking terms with Mehta) would likely have performed well, we are fortunate to witness Seema Biswas shine in a role that she has made her own.
On the occasion of Fox Searchlight Pictures release of Water in the U.S., Deepa Mehta was in New York for interviews, where she said the most challenging role to cast was Chuyia. She looked at 80 young girls in Mumbai, Delhi and Kolkata, but found that “most have been so influenced by Bollywood and the soaps they have unconsciously imbibed mannerisms that are so over-the-top and I thought it would be real work to undo that.” Sarala, the young actor chosen, comes from a small town near Colombo. Speaking only Sinhala, she learned her lines and direction through translation and sign language.
Lisa Ray and John Abraham are unexpectedly solid in their roles. Also in New York to promote the film, Lisa Ray commented that, while she has no intention of pursuing work in Bollywood movies, working with Abraham was “a revelation” and that she would have to, on occasion, stifle a laugh while still on camera because her co-star would trip on his dhoti upon exiting the scene.
The dialogue in Water is pared down and not as speechy as in Fire and Earth. Mehta herself admits it was too lengthy in the original script.
The absence and appearance of color weave in and out through the film. The widows’ residence is grey and bleak, emphasized even more by the ghostly residents, semi-catatonic in their grubby white saris and shorn heads. A riotously bright parrot and black puppy, two creatures not bound by man’s use of religion, provide vivid contrast to the bloodless lives of the virtual shut-ins. Because our eyes become accustomed to the visual monotony of the household, the scene of the puppy Kaalu running through the Varanasi lanes, dashing by chickens and through dry red peppers, the brilliance of the clothes worn by a mother and young daughter giving alms at the temple, Chuyia’s Krishna costume and the colored powders as the widows celebrate Holi, all explode on the screen like a flash flood in a desert. Even Narayan asks Kalyani about her would-be new life: “What is the first color you will wear?”
When talking about being a Toronto resident for over 30 years and returning often to India to make the movies that she does, Mehta credits being an Indo-Canadian, saying that “In Canada we really are a multi-cultural society, there is no melting pot and that is why I never felt that I had to leave my Indianness behind.” At the same time as the movie’s release in the U.S., Newmarket Press has just published Shooting Water: A Memoir of Second Chances, Family and Filmmaking by Devyani Saltzman, Deepa Mehta’s daughter. The twenty-something Oxford grad narrates the deep impact that her parents’ divorce, and choice to live with her father, had on her parents and herself in the past 15 years, and how, working in India and Sri Lanka as a member of the Water crew, allowed her a chance to rebuild her ties with her mother.
As fond as I am of many Hindi movies, I’ll also willingly admit that some of them have faults. Fight sequences may be cartoonish, plot points might be incredibly frail, some song picturizations could be deemed too sweet and self-indulgent and way too long, but nonetheless, even if the movies suffer from these or other problems, they are (sometimes) guilty pleasures and favorites.
At the same time, after seeing a mainstream Hindi movie, at some point the question will cross my mind: “Could this be well received outside of India?” 99% of the time, my answer is “Not for most audiences, other than foreigners who enjoy these type of films already.” And that’s fine. I’m not particularly concerned about whether Bollywood can take over the remaining population of the world that’s not captivated by it already, it’s just a passing thought.
To me, Ram Gopal Verma’s Company is perfect and this 2002 film could also be screened, say, in Chicago, at a typical suburban multiplex, and audiences would be rapt enough to sit through the English subtitles and stay to the end to see what happens. For a story about two underworld dons and their environment, it could have suffered from exaggerated, drag-on fight scenes with garishly red liquid gushing forth from everyone’s wounds, but RGV went instead for a spare approach, conveying the violence between men in the shortest of shots and quick cuts from one to the next. Thank you, Mr. Verma. As a woman who’s not terribly into action movies, one of the worst things I find myself sitting through in mainstream Indian movies is these prolonged dishum scenes and the inevitable accompanying shot of an exploding car shooting straight up into the air, and the not-at-all-well-hidden gas jet that has just propelled it upwards. Thank you for sparing us all of that.
Company is the story of the relationship between Malik (Ajay Devgan), a high-level underworld don who takes over the Aslambhai gang, and Chandu (Vivek Oberoi, in his first film), the small-time thief he hires and takes under his wing, and what happens as Chandu grows in ability and power.
One of the strengths of this movie is Verma’s realistic portrayal of the small details of the characters lives. In the beginning of the movie we see Chandu living with his mother (Seema Biswas) in a cramped, dark, small home down narrow lanes, surrounded by other poor people. He ferries her on the crossbar of his bicycle to buy food, and he rides home late one night with his gang on an almost deserted Bombay train. Ajay Devgan as Malik is a man of few words and tightly controlled movement who wears chains and smokes all the time. Later, when the group relocates to Hong Kong, they take up residence in high-rise, tastefully decorated terrace apartments.
The story takes place in Bombay, then Hong Kong, the Nairobi and Mombasa, and back to Bombay for the conclusion. The early Bombay period marks the introduction of Chandru to Malik’s world and the growth of both their careers. As they are close to being arrested by Police Inspector Sreenivasan (Mohanlal), they flee with their respective women and gangs to Hong Kong, where they grow even more powerful, but where conflicts arise, with tragic consequences, and Chandru flees to Nairobi.
The Bombay segment is the longest and the most atmospheric. The aging don Aslambhai lives in a sprawling, shadow-filled apartment at the top of an abandoned waterfront building, a politician departs in the ubiquitous white Ambassador from his Peddar Road residence, the gang parties as Isha Koppikar writhes to the chart-busting Khallas in a crowded disco, and Chandu saves Malik’s life at a shootout during a Bollywood movie mahurat (as RGV points to the links between the underworld and film world). One of the simplest and most perfect shots of the city comes when the gang is living in Hong Kong and a narrator remarks that the telephone is the biggest weapon of the underworld. The news of some recent incident is shown traveling all over Bombay by a dizzying series of quick shots of phones ringing, until the last shot of the sequence has a telephone alone on a table next to a window on a high floor of an apartment building and the background we see through the window is the Bombay skyline.
While never an Ajay Devgan fan before (he never seems right in hero roles), he does the whole strong, silent type well here, and I appreciated that the part was not scripted to portray him as a totally evil man. It’s plain to see that he really does love Saroja, the woman he lives with, and the most telling detail is that even when he learns that one of her actions has inadvertently contributed to the death of one of his men, he doesn’t pull out his gun and kill her, something that lesser movies on this subject would have had him do.
Vivek Oberoi makes an strong first impression as the newcomer on the scene who has a real fire in his belly to succeed. He is natural in the role, and genuine. The only thing I found a bit off was in the “making of” feature on the DVD, when he talked about his character, he pointed out that he had to spend hours in makeup as they covered him from head to toe in something to make him “about eight shades darker”, which I would think could been interpreted by some viewers as the young Oberoi suggesting that the darker you are, the more likely you are to have criminal tendencies.
The best casting of the film is Manisha Koirala as Saroja. Never married in real life, yet with a colorful romantic history behind her (Nana Patekar is one former love interest), she comfortably inhabits the skin of a character I’d bet some other actresses would have balked at taking. Saroja has a sleepy-eyed, laid back, been-there-done-that air about her and she has no qualms about “just” living with Malik. She smokes, drinks and wears rather hip pant suits with a string of small silver cuffs up the curve of her ear. It helps that she also has a cool shag haircut that would make Jane Fonda jealous. I liked that the couple are shown snuggled up together, half asleep and not talking about anything in particular while it rains outside, and not as most movies would do, making her the slutty bimbo moll who is just part of the background to be tossed around by the gangster.
The supporting cast – Mohanlal, Rajpal Yadav, Vijay Raaz, Antara Mali and Akash Khurana – are all solid in their roles, to the point that they don’t seem to be acting. Unlike in Sarkar, the music in Company actually helps the story along. A lone flute plays menacingly when bad things are happening and orchestral music rises to heighten the tension. Verma’s only concession to the push to have some picturized musical scenes in the movie are the opening credits, with his muse Urmila doing a slinky dance in a proto-Bond sequence, and then Khallas, which meshes perfectly with the picture, since the gang have gone for a night out to a club.
See it or skip it?
Don’t miss it. This movie is tight, well written and has a flawless cast.
The pimp, or the queeny uncle?
What were you thinking?
This 1973 Prakash Mehra movie is often cited as the launch of the Amitabh Bachchan angry-young-man role that was a turning point in the actor’s career as well as mainstream Hindi cinema, and coincided with a growing dissatisfaction with post-Independence government. It’s a story of one man’s revenge for the wrongs done to his family.
But never mind all that; Zanjeer is packed with funky 70s fashions, w-i-d-e sideburns and a fantastic getting-even story.
As with Amar Akbar Anthony, the film opens with a father just released from prison after taking the fall for his rich and powerful boss. In this case, it’s Ranjit, who works for a company that sold poisonous calcium pills, that he soon learns upon arriving home, have killed one of his own children. In his fury, he confronts the main bad guy denouncing what he’s been doing. Realizing that Ranjit is a danger, he dispatches one of his thugs to take care of him. It’s Diwali and as firecrackers go off, Ranjit and his wife are shot dead, as their son Vijay hides in a cupboard. From a partially open door, the terrified boy sees the arm of the assassin, and the chain bracelet and white horse charm that he wears.
The orphan Vijay is taken in by a police officer (again, reminiscent of one of the three boys in Amar, Akbar, Anthony) and lives in a caring home, but the child is still thwarted by dreams of a white horse, ridden by a masked figure clad in black, surrounded by mist.
Cut to the opening credits and Vijay, now an adult, awakes sweating and with his heart racing from the same dream.
As he leaves his bedroom to get ready for work, we see the uniform hanging on the back of the door. Vijay is now a police officer, one who has had 11 transfers during his five years on the force. His chief tells him that his weakness is he sees each criminal as his enemy.
In the next scene we meet the real-life Mrs. Amitabh Bachchan, the then Jaya Badhuri, in the role of Mala, the knife sharpener girl. She wears long braids and a gypsy scarf and earrings, and when confronted with a rude guy she is well able to defend herself, before Vijay arrives to take the ruffian away.
Shortly after, we meet the other important character in the film, Sher Khan of Badshah Lane, played, in flame-haired glory, by Pran. Sher Khan is a good-hearted Muslim who runs illegal card games. He crosses paths with Officer Vijay, first in the police station, but then at a market, where Vijay comes to fight with him on equal terms. Aside from some comic elements (the panwallah’s eyes spinning as he watches the fight), it was interesting to note that some shots during the fight scene were solely of Amitabh’s eyes and the bridge of his nose. The men realize that their fight is a tie and, acknowledging each other’s prowess, become friends, with Sher Khan giving up his illegal business endeavours.
Local crime boss Teja invites Vijay to a party at his house, thinking he can get him under his thumb. Vijay shows up in his party duds: a double-breasted red blazer, with a white shirt and topped off with a cravat, and we get treated to the spectacle of a vampy number by Bindu. She shimmies suggestively around the guests in a long sleeveless yellow dress with slits up the sides and fabric cutouts at the waist, and, best of all, a floral arrangement in her hair.
Mala witnesses one of Teja’s bootlegging drivers run over some children, and is convinced by Vijay to identify the man and testify against him. One night she is chased by Teja’s goons and she makes it to safety at Vijay’s house, where she spends the night. No hanky panky. (This is the early 70s!) But next morning a group of street performers outside the house sing as the two are separated, standing in two different windows side-by-side, and it becomes apparent that they have feelings for each other.
Vijay is later falsely accused of corruption and is rescued by Sher Khan, more than once. Mala wisely sees that his anger over his parents death and his desire for revenge is consuming him, and she releases him to seek vengence for once and for all so that they can be together in peace. Vijay meets the man (D’Silva) who’s been giving him tips to where Teja’s men will be moving goods, and learns that Teja has been responsible for the deaths of his three sons from some bad liquor one Christmas. Vijay sets off for the big showdown with Teja. Sher Khan drives him there, smoothing his voluminous read hair as he drives (er ??), and once at Teja’s pad, does away with one of the thugs with just the pink silk hankie he carries.
The big fight scene has a few surprises, including some pretty darn good knife work by Mala. Jaya was indeed an adorable young woman before she became the Uber Indi-Mom she is today. It was cool to see her in a role – even over 30 years ago – where she wasn’t just the squealing damsel in distress, and actually had something to contribute, other than her good looks.
See it or skip it?
This one is a must see! Amitabh Bachchan is at his smouldering best, this is a landmark in the history of Hindi movies as well as his career, and the story and characters have more depth than so many other mainstream films.