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Life in a… Metro – A review

Urban life can make you cynical, it can make you wonder if human existence, its gentle ebb and flow is being forgotten in the midst of all the motion and achievement. So, we need films like Metro to remind us to hope. In return we will forgive the fact that parts of this film look like Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna on steroids with practically every character cheating on his/her spouse/partner. If Madhur Bhandarkar had made this film, he would have called it Affair, in his great tradition of slice of life films like Page 3, Traffic Signal, Corporate etc. Luckily the film finds itself in the deft hands of Anurag Basu, who manages a crisp 2.5 hour flick that doesn’t suffer under the burden of multiple stories.

The theme of hope in the midst of all the insanity is represented through the refrain
Tu khwab saja, Tu jee le zara
Hai tujhe bhi ijazat, kar le tu bhi mohabbat
which represents the point of the whole film. It’s all about making choices that will make you happy, regardless of social strictures, peer pressure etc.

Metro follows a bunch of young people (and an old couple) in search of that elusive thing called love. Needless to say, all these characters are somehow connected to each other, though their stories progress separately. By now we are all used to the multiple narrative format and know that in the end all the tracks have to meet (and they do).

One of the most interesting tracks in the film is the story of Konkona and Irfan Khan. Irfan’s mysterious screen presence (defined primarily by his overall likable weirdness) is captivating. He is the eccentric man Konkona has been looking for all her life (while she outwardly claims to prefer a Mills and Boon man with a sense of humour, sensitivity etc). Equally unique is the story of Dharmendra and Nafisa who in the twilight of their lives make a brave choice to get together knowing that not doing so would leave them regretful forever. The approach to this story is quite courageous. Anurag Basu doesn’t shirk for even a moment from doing justice to this story including it’s intimate moments that would leave a young audience feeling a tad embarrassed. KK, Kangana Ranaut and Sharman Joshi are caught in a love triangle which manages to dampen the film a little bit. It’s here that Anurag resorts to caricatures of urban life that don’t gel too well with the overall realism of the film. Even here there are actually a few moments of brilliance. Shilpa Shetty is married to KK, and seeks companionship in Shiney Ahuja in what is a rather restrained and high quality performance.

Pritam’s music score deserves a special mention. Pritam’s band (physically) appears throughout the film at crucial junctures and actually belts out numbers while the characters go about their lives. In a way the band actually plays the role of a narrator that takes the story forward. For instance when Shilpa Shetty finally decides to befriend Shiney Ahuja realizing that her relationship with her husband (KK) is going nowhere, Pritam’s band appears with the melodious ‘In dino..’, a song that lets us reflect on what has just happened. [Is zamane se chupkar, poori kar loon main hasrat.] I do not recall many recent films that have managed more perfectly to mesh the score into the script.

The choice of Mumbai as the setting for this tale is not surprising. Mumbai allows all sorts of contradictions to co-exist and as one character points out, manages to take more from you than what it gives. The British Raj nostalgia of the Fort area, the unceasing rains during monsoon, its BEST buses and local trains all make for interesting settings in which our characters can look for love while the city benevolently looks at them.

Metro ends on an optimistic note [Kyon zindagi se ho shikwa gila etc]. Almost all the trains of narrative finally converge literally at a train station. And yes, most of our characters do find love in the end. It could end in no other way…otherwise we would have to walk out of the theater unable to bear the burden of living in a… metro.

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Black Friday – the review

There is a shot in Black Friday that will stay with you long after the credits roll out. It’s the way the camera slowly moves over people who have just been hit by the blasts at the Bombay Stock Exchange. The chilling silence in those shots, and the shock on the faces of the bleeding victims reminds us of the tragedy of innocent people who lose their lives in terror attacks. These are the everyday people we meet, who work hard to make ends meet, and who couldn’t care less about their religious identity and yet find themselves right in the middle of such acts of terror.

Black Friday explores the events leading to the Mumbai blasts of ’93, and the investigations that ensued. It straddles both sides of the story quite well – with Kay Kay Menon as the sincere cop who is behind the truth at all costs, and on the other end the team of perpetrators behind the blast, led by Tiger Memon. Each camp is steely in its resolve – one, to inflict on Mumbai an act of terror that would send ripples across the world, the other to bring these people to justice in the face of all the inefficiencies of the police system. Symbolic of the latter is a chase scene showing a cop running behind one of the suspects. The chase turns farcical when both the cop and the suspect are so tired of running that they decide to slow down to the point of both walking at a comfortable pace, one behind the other, each fully knowing the end result of this enterprise (the arrest of the suspect).

Anurag Kashyap’s grim and no nonsense portrayal of the planning behind the blasts is truly chilling – be it the process of making those bombs, the way in which each of the bombs was planted, and the actual explosions. Yet the film does not entirely try to be a documentary about the chronological sequence of events. In fact one of the best things about the film is its detailed portrayal of the journey of one of the characters – Badshah, played by Aditya Srivastava – a young devout Muslim who is brainwashed into joining the cause. As a desperate man on the run in the aftermath of the explosions, Badshah gradually begins to come to terms with the futility of it all, and ultimately turns into a police witness. The depth of the performance by Aditya Srivastava truly makes one feel that this little side story had enough in it to be a film in itself.

An interesting device used in the film is how actual news footage is interspersed in the midst of the story. These news clips serve to remind us that the story that we are watching is not some fictitious thriller. Instead it is very much a part of our own lives – a part that we repress so much that you wouldn’t see it on the face of the average Mumbaikar who grimly hangs out of a local train each morning on his way to work at Nariman Point.

At the end, Black Friday does not try to polarize its viewers into supporting any camp – Hindu or Muslim. The demolition of Babri Masjid, and the riots that followed were just as gruesome as the thirteen retaliatory bomb blasts at Mumbai. The film suggests that the ultimate villains are powerful people who infuse religious fanaticism into the masses, with the intention of perpetuating their own hold on power. The realism in Black Friday also manages to restore some faith in Indian cinema, which is yet to outgrow its fetish for wedding songs and yuppie love.

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Guru – The review

Watching Guru made me realize why we never make it to the Oscars. The reason is this – even our best directors shy away from making a film that is not commercially safe. So, one has to endure arbitrary five minute dream sequences where a bunch of dancers emerge from nowhere to dance to A.R. Rahman’s tunes.

Equally tragic is the fact that in the midst of all this commercial pandering, Mani Ratnam is hardly left with enough time to develop Guru’s character, and his rise from rags to riches. The relationship between Guru, and the morally upright editor of ‘The Independent’ (played by Mithun) is also drawn with hasty caricaturist strokes. Why, even the crtical relationship between Guru and his wife, who stands by him through his entire life, inspite of realizing that Guru married her primarily for the dowry which was to be the seed capital for his first venture. Here was a glorious opportunity to present the Indian nari in her true selfless ego-less glory. Instead, one has to suffer through beautiful songs that would be much more beautiful were they to stay out of the narrative’s flow.

In the midst of all this is the unnecessary, and purely irritating ‘side’ plot of how this investigative reporter (Madhavan) from The Independant falls in love with Mithun’s multiple sclerosis afflicted daughter (played listlessly by Vidya Balan). If this entire sub-plot were removed, Mani Ratnam may have found some more time to present both sides of the allegations againgst Guru. On one side is the story of a heroic entrepreneur who twists the rules of the game in the interest of his shareholders, and on the other is the scheming villain who breaks laws in the name of capitalism.

The film stands out primarily due to Abhishek Bachchan’s sincere effort, which truly marks his coming of age as an actor. The final “capitalism in the midst of the license raj” speech by Abhishek in front of the enquiry commission is quite something. Equally breathtaking are the occassions when Guru addresses his shareholders (assembled in a packed cricket stadium). Unfortunately, the film which could have been a extraordinary testimonial to the Indian entrepreneur who makes it inspite of all odds, turns into a rather long winded saga filled with unnecessary sub-plots, and songs.

Update: Novelist Amitava Kumar shares my sentiment.

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Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi – A Review

A thousand dreams like this – thats what the title of the movie translates into. This one’s about broken dreams and ideals. HKA tells the story of 3 characters – Siddharth, Vikram and Geeta who are college students in the late 60s when the movie begins. Those were the days of student activism of the kind that present-day India lacks. Siddharth is the idealist who believes he can transform the nation of its social and political evils through his group, that he calls a ‘party’ and the government calls ‘naxalites’. Gita loves him and seemingly believes in his ideals. Vikram is more like the modern day Indian youth who couldnt care less about the country as long has he is successful professionally.

Siddharth is a character who largely comes out to be uni-dimensional. KK Menon does all he can with the rather simplistic character that the director has created. Perhaps the director could have tried to let us know him better. All we understand of him is that he wants to change the nation. He also has occasional pangs of guilt about being the cause of all the problems in Gita’s life. Gita, played admirably by Chitrangada Singh is the Kerry-esque flip-flopper. Forever in a conflict – first about choosing Siddharth’s radical path of nation-transformation and then about leaving her husband Arun. Once we find her in a party with her new husband – an IAS officer and once we find her in some village as a teacher and so on it goes – she is never quite sure what she really stands for – a fence sitter like most of us! Her love for Siddharth, whose child she manages to bear somewhere in the midst of all the confusion, often over-powers her rational judgement and often it does so at the wrong time. But the movie really belongs to Vikram, played to absolute perfection by Shiney Ahuja. This is a man who has loved Gita from the beginning and who seems to have a keen desire to be around Gita all the time, perhaps in the hope that she will change her mind one day and that he should be around when that happens. A scene where he barges into a circuit house in Bihar where Siddharth and Gita have a secret rendezvous after her marriage belongs completely to him. It is also a defining scene in the film where the cynical Vikram and the idealistic Siddharth have a little confrontation that summarizes what the characters stand for [except Gita, the half-hearted idealist].

As we peek into the trials of the 3 protagonists, we also learn more about the period that the film is set in and about the emergency. As the plot winds itself to its conclusion, the director throws in a bit of a surprise ending too, which kind of goes well with the overall tragic-comedy-irony theme of the whole film. After a really long time comes an Indian film that is so good that never do you find yourself saying aloud “that makes no sense” , the way you do with most mainstream bollywood trash. Perhaps the best way to support such cinema is to go to a theatre and buy the tickets! To top the cake with Siddhu’s cherry, you also have some really soulful music in this film that stays with you for a long while after the film…
PS: I thought the film was better than Black, which i found to be an over-rated piece of un-intentional magic realism where Bachchan hams so much, you wonder if senility has hit him hard.


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