Monday, August 30, 2010

The Odd Couple

In all its incarnations on stage and screen, the definitive Odd Couple is inarguably Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau (other combinations have included the likes of Martin Short and Eugene Levy, and Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane). Matthau, part of the original Broadway production, reprised his role as Oscar Madison, and Lemmon replaced Art Carney. It was a dream pairing - Lemmon’s natural fussiness as an actor was a hilarious contrast to Matthau’s brusqueness. Their chemistry has the crackle of a Bogart-Bacall exchange: no wonder we never see their wives in the movie.

Screenwriter Neil Simon adapted his own play for this 1968 movie. Felix is a worrywart, an obsessive neat-freak, who’s recently been divorced; Oscar, also a divorcee and concerned about his friend’s well-being, invites him to stay at his place. But the two are oil and water, and we watch as they start to get on each other nerves. Rounding out the cast are their poker buddies and two very giggly women.

Even though Gene Saks is the man in charge, it’s obvious who the real director is –Simon’s script. With the exception of Lemmon clearing his nose in the diner, every laugh is derived from it - the wit on display is never visual. The on-screen movement remains constricted, as if the camera and the actors had been given a fixed space and told not to move beyond it. One wishes that someone like Billy Wilder, who was originally offered the chance to direct, had had a go at it. As it stands, it feels stillborn, like watching a very funny play on film. The Odd Couple is great theatre, but not necessarily great cinema.

A version of this review appeared in Time Out Delhi.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Being There

An outrageous piece of punning transforms Chance, the gardener, into Chauncy Gardener. As often happens in movies, he is pushed into outlandish situations (like advising the president on economic policy), and though its clear he’s talking rubbish, everyone around decides that he is brilliant. “You have the gift of being natural”, he is told by Melvyn Douglas’ character, a dying king-maker whose wife brings Chance (played by Peter Sellers) home after inadvertently injuring him. Natural, sure, but at what price interesting?

Chance is of the same ilk as characters like Forrest Gump and Rizvan Khan, but he has nothing of their charm, and it becomes increasingly difficult for the viewer to forge any sort of connect with him. In fact, the only character who comes close to engaging the audience’s sympathies is Shirley MacLaine as a sad widow-to-be. It’s almost degrading when she throws herself at Chance - one just cannot see where the attraction lies. Chance isn’t enterprising, or funny, or perceptive – he just walks around making vague pronouncements, and inexplicably, the world is his stooge. But that’s a movie world, and those watching this in the real one may ask themselves exactly why they have to pretend to be so stupid.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Unstructured thoughts on Peepli Live

Even in the years before it gained a cult following, this much was clear about Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron - the builder-politician nexus was just a smokescreen. The film’s real target was a larger, equally malfunctioning entity – India. Two decades later, Peepli Live, even though it is set in a village and looks at the specific problems of its inhabitants, is aiming at that same target, which is both changed and unchanging. Is it depressing to think that the same issues Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron provoked people into laughing about in 1983 – political opportunism, media manipulation, the crushed spirit of the average citizen – feel so of-the-moment when raised by Peepli Live today? It should be.

It’s a premise both audacious and completely probable. Natha, a farmer unable to feed himself and his family, decides to commit suicide with the misguided notion that the government will pay his family one lakh rupees in compensation. However, the media gets wind of this story and puts his ‘live suicide’ attempt on primetime. From then on, the decision of whether he will live or not is virtually taken out of his hands by TRP-crazed journalists and power brokers at different points along the political chain. The media sets up fort in Peepli and follows Natha everywhere, even to the fields to catch him during his early morning business.

There are times when the film is reminiscent of The Gods Must Be Crazy, but there’s at least one significant difference. That film sailed along on the helium of the supposed ‘innocence’ of the bushmen, while in Peepli, no one is completely innocent. Buddhia, Natha’s brother, and the one who plants the suicide idea in his head, certainly isn’t. Even Natha isn’t especially na├»ve; you always get the feeling he knows that something is wrong but before he can put his finger on it someone else has said something new and confusing. I liked that the director refrained from showing the villagers as necessarily nobler than the urban folk who invade their village (and also from employing the canard that they’d be happy if only they were left alone). It leaves the decision about whom to like and dislike up to the viewer, in a way that most films in the recent past haven’t. I found myself drawn to the character of Rakesh, a small-town journalist who badly wants to impress the imperious English-speaking reporter who breaks the story. Also fascinating was the near-wordless farmer who keeps digging (for reasons I am unable to explain, he reminded me of the master swordsman from Seven Samurai).

Peepli differs on a couple of counts from most of the breakthrough Hindi films of the past few years. For one, it focuses on a people whom mainstream cinema has less and less time for today. Though it may seem callous, I don’t think one can condemn this trend – one which started mid ‘90s and picked up steam in the aughts. If anything, it’s an accurate reflection of literate society’s urban bent of mind. If talented filmmakers are choosing to tell stories set in urban India, they’re simply making films about subject matter they’re familiar with. That may not be very civic-minded, but decades of making films that were set in a rural milieu didn’t do much for the people there either. If the truth is that there’s an ever-widening gulf between village and city life, then this urban bias on the part of movies is simply art imitating life (and also going where the money is).

The second way Peepli differs these films like Omakra, Dev D, recently Udaan, is stylistically. While these films employ considerable cinematic high-jinks to get their stories told, Peepli is unobtrusive by comparison. Apart from the occasional cranked-up frame for comic effect, Peepli refrains from showy camera movements or dramatic lighting. Instead of dazzling audiences, it seems content to wait and watch as events unfold. There are few moments of beauty – no waving fields, or villagers ‘forgetting their troubles’ and dancing, and Ghar aaja pardesi-type sentimentality to emphasise a return to roots. The structure was almost orchestral – moments of stillness broken by flurries of movement, every character an instrument contributing to the larger sound.

Where does Peepli’s ending – with Natha escaping his village and finding work far away in the big city, as a labourer in a construction site – leave us, the audience (maybe I should say urban audience)? Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron had an unhappy ending too, but it was played for laughs. Peepli doesn’t – a sign, perhaps, as to how the makers really saw the project. Rizvi had said in an interview that she’d be happy if her audience was made uncomfortable by her film. I think Peepli Live is ultimately a bit too successful in inducing the laughs to leave a lasting feeling of unease with its viewers. That’s hardly an indictment – the laughs earned by this movie are of a rare sort, in that they stem from understatement, not exaggeration. Peepli Live’s humour taps into something that is uniquely Indian; it flies in the face of the widely-held belief that humour is the truth narrated in a funny manner. Out here, it could simply be the truth. Our crazy country takes care of the rest.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Fancast #5: Beta Band/ Dirty Projectors/ Feelies

The Beta Band

The ultimate rainy day band. A mishmash of styles - folkie strumming, subdued harmonies, new age bleeps and blips, drum machines, chipmunk noises, the occasional rap, and a tendency to gravitate towards movements like the second half of "Hey Jude" - all held together by sad-sounding melodies. It sounds terrible written down like this. Its the most originial thing you're likely to hear.

Album to hear: The 3 EPs

The Dirty Projectors

Demented arty pop, with the most suprising harmonies ever. They sound like a grapefruit.

Album to hear: Bitte Orca

The Feelies

Strum, mumble, churn. Like a cross between R.E.M and The Velvet Underground. For some people, that's enough said.

Album to hear: The Good Earth

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Umberto D.

In the 1930s and ’40s, a group of filmmakers in Italy decided, in the words of one of their practitioners, to show the world their rags. Neorealismo, or Italian neorealism, favoured natural locations to studio sets, untrained actors to matinee idols, and were a key influence on the French New Wave and Indian cinema’s golden era of the ’50s. Vittorio De Sica was perhaps the most representative of this genre, and Umberto D. was one of his most critically successful films (though it never won at Cannes, as the DVD cover erroneously claims).

Like most of his movies, it’s a simple tale – Umberto Dominigo Ferrari, a pensioner down on his luck, is evicted by his landlady and wanders around Rome in search of money, shelter and companionship. His only friend is his dog Flike, a mongrel with “intelligent eyes”. It’s a Chaplainesque conceit, but De Sica denies his main character the charm that could have turned this story into saccharine. Umberto, played by non-professional actor Carlo Battisti, turns his piercing gaze outward on the world (inward as well, in a heartbreaking moment when he almost considers begging) and receives in return occasional pity, but mostly indifference and contempt.

His mood darkens as the film progresses, and the general feeling of hopelessness is complemented by GR Aldo’s camerawork, which takes us, via the dog pound and the hospital, on what is decidedly not a Roman holiday. The film, however, is let down badly by the score. Too melodramatic for a film of this nature, sweeping when it ought to have be spare, it compromises De Sica’s approach by making the viewer feel manipulated into feeling sympathy. Apart from this, Umberto D. manages to remain clear-eyed and unforgiving.

A version of this review appeared in Time Out Delhi.