Tuesday, March 27, 2012

In Time: DVD review

If you’re the sort who starts sentences with “If time were money...”, you’ll probably like this movie. Time is money here – it’s the year 2161 and life stops at 25, unless you’re rich enough to buy more. Yes, time has becomes a currency of sorts, transferrable from one person to another. And yes, successful sci-fi thrillers have been made on flimsier premises (for instance: “This is a movie about corporate spies who steal business secrets by entering people’s dreams”).

Will Salas (Justin Timberlake) is a factory worker from Dayton, a working-class neighbourhood where people’s time keeps running out. Quite by chance, he’s gifted 116 years by a world-weary aristocrat who “times himself out”. Unfortunately, the cops, or “time-keepers”, assume that the suicide is murder and start hunting for Salas, who’s moved to the classier part of town. There he meets Philippe Weis (Mad Men’s Vincent Kartheiser), and relieves him of both his money and his daughter Sylvia (Amanda Seyfried). Just when things couldn’t get stranger, the time-keepers turn up, Salas takes Sylvia hostage and soon they two are on the run, in a literal race against time.
The director is Andrew Niccol, whose debut film Gattaca was a more cogent sci-fi satire (he also wrote The Terminal and The Truman Show, both of which are variations on existing outside of time).

In Time is mildly gripping, and Timberlake can evidently carry a film by himself, but it also takes its ludicrous premise way too seriously. We’re repeatedly told that the rich keep time for themselves by raising the cost of living, and are expected to cheer when Salas and Sylvia become a Bonnie and Clyde-like couple, stealing time and giving it to those in need. We’d rather just watch them run from time-keeper Cillian Murphy, or play “Who’s the best-looking member of a cast that includes Amanda Seyfried, Alex Pettyfer, Olivia Wilde and Matt Bomer?”. The DVD includes a couple of deleted scenes, but we wouldn’t encourage you giving up hours of your life in exchange for this.
A version of this piece appeared in Time Out Delhi.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

In which the blogger offends fans of Guide

I am not the biggest fan of Guide. I thought it might have been more interesting if they'd made Marco a more sympathetic character, instead of an ogre (an impotent one, to boot). I also feel the film loses the plot a little when Raju becomes jealous of Rosie's success; it doesn't seem very consistent with his essentially good-natured character of the first half. I'll admit there are some noteworthy moments in the movie, most of them connected to Waheeda Rehman dancing or Dev Anand's dialogue delivery. But for me (and it must be just me, because everyone else seems to think the world of this film), the only scenes in Guide I'd want to see again and again are the first nine minutes.

The film starts in flashback, with Raju being released from jail. After a brief flashback, and a interior monologue in which he concludes he can never go back to where he came from, we see him set out on the road. As the credits unfold and the sonorous voice of SD Burman sings "Wahaan Kaun hai Tera", we see rapidly cut scenes of him sleeping by the wayside, sweating, get soaked in the rain, freezing, working on a farm for money. There's a fantastic shot in which he's looking at coins strewn around his feet, which people have obviously thrown at him assuming he's a beggar. He won't pick them up though; he grabs his jhola and takes off running. It's no more than a few seconds, but it cues us in to the kind of character Raju is.

The Average Shot Length for this credits sequence can't be much more than 3 seconds. This is unusual if you consider that Vijay Anand, Guide's director, is known for his long, intricate takes. There's nothing that resembles the percussive style of these early scenes in the rest of the film's three hour running time. When I saw Guide recently, I did something many fans of Indian cinema will probably consider sacrilege. Instead of letting the movie sink in, I immediately went back and replayed the first nine minutes. Then I did it again. And again

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Anatomy of a Scene: The 25th Hour

"It all came so close to never happening. This life came so close to never happening"

The best passage in the 2002 film The 25th Hour is nothing like you’d expect from its maker, combative Spike Lee. The series of short scenes that unfold after James Brogan puts his battered son Monty in the car are, in all likelihood, an alternative reality dreamed up by a father who cannot deal with the idea of his son going to prison. On the way to jail, James starts to talk about leaving town, driving out west. We’ll have one last whiskey, he says, and part ways forever. Monty will then change his name, get a job, settle down, have kids. He can never come back, or be who he was before, but he’ll have a life. As the old man speaks, images from Monty’s new life flash before us, teasing us with the possibility that all any jailbird needs is a dad willing to drive him out of town. Yet, I found myself moved to tears, and reduced to arguing, unconvincingly, with myself about how Monty does indeed escape and start a new life. What makes these scenes all the more touching is that you wouldn’t expect Brian Cox, a no-nonsense actor if ever there was one, to be selling you a can of hot baloney, and you don’t expect Spike Lee, whose career has always been about confrontation, to direct something that’s pure escapism.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Don't mind your language

A piece I'd written for GQ on cussing in Hindi films.

It’s fitting that two of the big year-end releases were The Dirty Picture, loosely based on the life of soft porn star Silk Smitha, and Desi Boyz, an Indian Full Monty. 2011 has been a bold year by Bollywood standards. Provocation equalled publicity; you could see it in the titles (Ragini MMS), the songs (“DK Bose”) and the material (the-road-to-heaven-is-paved-with-handjobs philosophy of That Girl in Yellow Boots). And while significant skin shows are still a no-go, profanity in Bollywood films has sprouted belated, rapidly fluttering wings.
For years, audiences in this country have had to make do with actors gritting their teeth and saying “Saale”, when they ought to be letting loose truly satisfying torrents of abuse. This embargo has now been lifted, with the Censor Board concentrating its scissorhands on (allegedly) inflammatory communal, political and sexual content instead. Still, today’s foul-mouthed films do owe a debt to Shekhar Kapoor’s Bandit Queen, which huffed and cussed the door down in 1994, only to be buried under a snowstorm of controversy. Twelve years later, mainstream cinema had its first brush with A-level gaalis with Vishal Bharadwaj’s Omkara. After that, it was just a matter of time before everyone joined in. Dev.D had a trilingual phone sex scene. Ishqiya introduced, to the horror of male-dominated Bollywood, the cussing female lead. Soon, directors across town were painting their scripts purple.
On the Fugees’ 1996 album The Score, Lauren Hill bragged that her rhymes were so complex, she had to couch them in the kind of language which people in the hood would understand. “And even after all my logic and my theory/ I add a muthafucker so you ignint niggas hear me,” she rapped. Thankfully, our filmmakers don’t seem to be hiding behind any such cop-outs. Foul language is one more element that’s been added to their arsenal, and they’re using it to suit their ends. Some treat it as a useful additive; like Peepli Live, where the abuses are sporadic and in keeping with the surroundings. Others use it as a cheap parlour trick, like the scene in Tanu Weds Manu where Rajendra Gupta, a distinguished presence in films like Seher and Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro, is made to shout “Ho gaya na phir...CHUTIYAAPA”.
One of the happy by-products of the freeing up of our cinematic lexicon is the way cursing has leaped across the gender bender. Ever since Vidya Balan called Arshad Warsi ‘chutiyam sulphate’ in last year’s Ishqiya, we’ve seen a series of female characters prepared to match their male co-stars cuss for cuss. This year, there was Kangana Ranaut mouthing off in Tanu Weds Manu, as well as two leading ladies – Rani Mukherjee’s inexplicably combative reporter in No One Killed Jessica, and Balan in The Dirty Picture – asking the question “Phat gayi?” Keen followers of Hindi cinema will also point to the young bride in Urf Professor – a decade-old unreleased film by the late Pankaj Advani – who stuns her initially condescending husband with a frank litany of her sexual conquests.
My nominee for Hindi cinema’s holy grail of onscreen cursing might seem an unlikely example. With Love, Sex aur Dhoka, Dibakar Banerjee showed that he wasn’t afraid to use profanity in ways that were disturbing and not at all cool. His Khosla Ka Ghosla, however, was as family-friendly as they come – unless, that is, you listen carefully when Sahni Saab is advising Khosla on the bus. A published version of the script might record the kindly sardar as saying “Yeh poora desh hi compromise pe chal raha hai [this whole country is working on compromises]”. Let the record show there’s a ‘behenchod’ in there as well. Now, I don’t want to build a stray curse into something bigger than it is. I’ll simply suggest that the ‘behenchod’ survived in the final cut because it fit in with the rhythm of Sahni’s speech and sounded so natural that no one really noticed it was there. Which plain-spoken Punjabi trying to make a point would think twice before saying that word? This is when cussing on film is at its most effective: when it seems so integral to the character’s speech patterns that you cannot picture the person talking any other way.
If profanity really is the new sex/violence, I’m inclined to believe it’ll cause more good than harm. Hearing someone abuse can be very revealing. You probably couldn’t tell much about a person by the way they fight or screw, but you can certainly peg someone by the way they cuss. Like the three young slackers of Delhi Belly, upper class youth in lower-middle class surroundings – it makes sense that they’d abuse with equal fluency in English and Hindi (or combine the two, as with “Your gaand is a solar eclipse”). To call this gutter-speak is to wish away reality; it’s the language of the streets, of the people. The closer our films come to approximating this, the sooner we’ll arrive at a truly representative cinema.
Here's the piece on their site. Also, an earlier post I'd done on the subject.