Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Barfi! - Review

One of the happy triumphs of Barfi! is the way it manages to avoid becoming a “message film”, even though one of its protagonists is deaf-mute and another autistic. Our films – even sensitively handled ones like Black and Taare Zameen Par – tend to use disabled characters as a sort of censorious mirror reflecting society’s biases and indifference. Barfi!, on the other hand, sticks close to its characters, treating them like real people, not issues to be resolved.

Barfi (Ranbir Kapoor) is a young man-about-Darjeeling. He cannot hear or speak, but is otherwise well-adjusted: cycling around, flirting and troubling the local cops. He falls for Shruti (Ileana D’Cruz), and despite her protestations (she’s engaged), woos her like a regular Charles Chaplin. At the same time, Jhilmil (Priyanka Chopra), the autistic daughter of a local businessman, re-enters his life. As the story unfolds in an intricate series of flashbacks, we watch these three characters chase each other from Darjeeling to Calcutta and back, with Saurabh Shukla’s harried police officer a constant step behind. There’s kidnapping and attempted robbery and even a murder, yet the film never loses its whimsical tone.

Maybe it was the mountain air, or the fact that he’s a Bengali director finally getting to shoot in Bengal, but Barfi! seems to have released something joyful and buoyant in Anurag Basu. Unlike the pessimistic narratives of his previous two films, Life in a... Metro and Kites, this one glides along like classic silent comedy. Kapoor adds to this impression, with a performance so light on its feet it makes everyone else seem like they’re trying too hard.

One might fault the director for introducing a plot coincidence too many. One could criticise the theft of certain silent movie standards, like the handsy marionette, or the piece of paper that won’t get unstuck. After a while though, it might be easier to just sit back, relax and surrender to Barfi!’s varied charms. There’s Pritam’s music, appropriately sunny and eccentric. There are the committed performances, not just by Kapoor, but also Chopra, Shukla and Akash Khurana as Barfi’s dad. There’s the cinematography by Ravi Varman, who performs small miracles, shooting through trees and off reflected surfaces. And there’s Darjeeling in the ’70s, a picture postcard simulation of an age when people actually sent postcards.

This review is on the Time Out website.

Postscript: Was disappointed to hear that one of Barfi!'s scenes is a straight lift from The Notebook, and another one from the Japanese film Departures. It's easier to explain away the silent film borrowings, not so much these

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Catch a fire

I've been a fan of Fire in Babylon since I saw it a year or so ago. It's a tremendously entertaining documentary, and those of you who haven't seen it have a chance next week, thanks to a limited theatrical release courtesy PVR. I spoke to the director Stevan Riley for this piece for Time Out. 

The English, as we all know, introduced its colonies – notably India and the West Indies – to cricket. Not surprising then, that defeating their former rulers at their own game would prove a huge boost to the self-esteem of these two cricketing nations. After India recorded their first series win in England in 1971, Wisden reported that people in Bombay were dancing in the streets and garlanding wireless sets. And the 3-0 drubbing the West Indies gave England in 1976 marked the beginning of nothing less than a new era in world cricket.

Fire in Babylon, an affectionate look back at the West Indian team of the late ’70s, uses this series win as a dramatic turning point in its story. In 1975, the Windies were humiliated by the Australian fast bowlers, a defeat that galvanised their captain Clive Lloyd into finding his own pace battery. A year later, he had Andy Roberts, Michael Holding and Vanburn Holder (Colin Croft and Joel Garner would soon join that line-up). The real spark, however, was English skipper Tony Greig’s promise to make the West Indian visiting team “grovel”. As Gordon Greenidge points out in the film, this was not a very clever thing to say. The West Indian pacemen, bowling fast and short of a length (in a pre-helmet age), subjected the English to a torrid time. The visitors won 3-0. Jamaican band Ezeike had a hit with “Who’s Grovelling Now?”.

Fire in Babylon’s director, British documentary filmmaker Steven Riley, is a long-time fan of the West Indian team, especially their fast bowlers. “I remember watching matches as a teenager, waiting for someone to get hurt,” he said, over the phone from London. “That was part of the excitement.” He said that in those days, he “partly supported the West Indies, even when they were playing against England”. (Many Indians who grew up in the’70s and ’80s have made similar admissions about this particular team.) In 2009, when two cricket-crazy producers, Ben Elliott and Ben Goldsmith, floated the idea of making a film on the subject, he jumped at the chance to direct it.

Riley may have been a fan, but he wasn’t an expert. To remedy this, he dove into research, reading everything from CLR James’ Beyond a Boundary to player biographies. His immersion in the period helped him convince several greats from the team to appear in his film. “The real turning point was when we got Viv on board,” Riley said. Vivian Richards, regarded by many as the greatest batsman of his era, lends his deep-voiced authority to the film, as do Croft, Greenidge, Lloyd, Holding and Roberts. Holding even does the narration in his distinctive patois. There’s also a diverse sample of talking heads: dreadlocked author Frank I, professor Hilary Beckles and the legendary Bunny Wailer.

Wailer isn’t the only musician to feature in the film. Fire in Babylon is the closest thing imaginable to a cricket-themed calypso-and-reggae musical. Though the narrative focuses on the years between 1975 and ’85, the soundtrack goes further back, featuring singers like Lord Short Shirt, and a performance of Lord Beginner’s 1950 number “Cricket Lovely Cricket”, with its immortal couplet “With those little pals of mine/ Ramadhin and Valentine”. Riley said it was difficult to imagine making the film any other way. “Music is so much part of the culture in the West Indies,” he said. “You can’t walk 20 yards in Jamaica without someone coming at you with a ghetto blaster.” He pointed out how singing eulogies to the cricket team was a local tradition. “The overlaps between music and cricket and politics there are fascinating.”

Audiences here should find it easy to identify with one of Fire in Babylon’s recurring themes: that cricket, at its best, is more than just a game. “These islands only come together under the banner of the West Indian cricket team. It’s the only thing we do together,” says Holding at one point. The film examines how this team became a unifying force for the islands, and how its success went some way in erasing the lingering colonial hangover. The team was also, in its own way, a political force, standing up for blacks in South Africa during apartheid, and for their own rights as athletes and entertainers (frustrated with their low salaries, they briefly ditched the national team for Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket).

The biggest stumbling block with discussing the Windies’ glorious past is that the discussion invariably turns to its unhappy present. After remaining unbeaten between 1980 and 1995 – an unrivalled run in modern sport – the supply of lightning quicks dried up and the slump began. Riley hoped that his film might serve as “an education” for young West Indians unaware of their cricketing past. It’s already done the trick once. On 12th June this year, in the third Test against England, Tino Best scored 95, a world record for a number 11 batsman. Later, he credited Fire in Babylon as the inspiration for his knock.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Blue Valentine

Derek Cianfrance began writing Blue Valentine in 1998, when he was 24 years and one film old. He ended up completing it 12 years later. In the meantime, he got married, had a kid, made documentaries for a living. Though spending that much time on one hard-sell project might have led someone else to quit the business altogether, Blue Valentine is arguably stronger for it. For Cianfrance’s film examines, unflinchingly, the effect of the passage of time on a relationship.

When we're first introduced to Dean and Cindy (Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling), the husband-wife pair are so irritable with each other, one wonders whether there was any love to begin with. A little later, that question is answered. A parallel strand of the story shows the couple younger by a decade or so, happy, hopeful. As he begins to court her, the film starts to bite into the viewer’s skin. We know how this ends. It’s like watching a ballet turn into a train wreck. It doesn’t help that Gosling and Williams reach within themselves and pull out performances worthy of a Cassevettes film.

It seems pretty unlikely that anyone would allow children to watch a DVD whose cover has “The most provocative film of the year” emblazoned across it. Nevertheless, a couple of sex scenes pertinent to the story have been snipped off. But Blue Valentine remains damaging and dangerous, in ways that simple-minded censors will never get around to understanding. The film gives it to us straight. Love will fade. Familiarity will breed contempt. Ryan Gosling will lose his hair and start looking like a creepy spud. It even punctures that great movie lie, that the memory of love may be enough to save things. This DVD has no special features, though interested viewers should seek out Cianfrance’s interview with critic Elvis Mitchell on the KCRW website.