Monday, November 18, 2013

Goliyon Ki Rasleela Ram-Leela: Review

Two Gujju households, both alike in dignity. In rural Kutch, where we lay our scene. It’s the Romeo and Juliet remake you didn’t know you wanted.

It makes sense that Sanjay Leela Bhansali would pick this particular Shakespeare play. Romeo and Juliet is melodramatic, colourful and full of grand gestures – things that get said about every Bhansali film, good or bad. If you think Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 version was over the top, wait till you see what Bhansali has in store.

The Saneras and the Rajadis have been fighting for centuries, which is quite believable, since all they do in the film is make elaborate threats to wipe each other out. Our star-crossed lovers are Ranveer Singh’s Ram, from Team Rajadi, and Deepika Padukone’s Leela, from Team Sanera (Ram-Leela! Get it?) They fall for each other, do the mandatory balcony scene, elope. They’re tracked down, of course, and from there it’s just a matter of time – an hour and a half more – before they do what’s expected of them.

Bhansali, as is his wont, starts out in third gear, shifts to fifth, and keeps it there for the rest of the film. There are moments when the melodrama is so heightened you’re carried along by the sheer hysteria of it all. There’s little that Bhansali won’t try – Leela’s mother chopping her daughter’s finger because she won’t take off Ram’s ring is almost Shakespearean in its ridiculousness.

Whoever wrote the pre-credits message claiming that no peacocks, living or dead, were used in the film obviously wasn’t taking into account Ranveer Singh’s performance. Singh, with a six-pack so defined it looks like it’s made of plastic, plays every scene like he’s been smeared with chilli powder, grimacing and seething and biting everyone’s head off. Padukone, wisely keeping to a lower key, is much more effective, especially in the first half, where she’s the most forward Juliet since Parineeti Chopra in Ishaqzaade. Gulshan Devaiah and Richa Chadda get little to do, though Supriya Pathak is mighty scary as the leader of the Saneras.

Though the sheer visual bombast can get wearying after a while, there’s no denying that Ram-Leela is an attractive-looking film. The director’s cinematic eye is as attuned to colour and flash as ever, but there’s nothing compelling happening underneath the surface. As has become customary, Bhansali the stylist passes the baton to Bhansali the storyteller and watches in frustration as he drops it.

This review appeared in Time Out Delhi. Could have been better. So could the film.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Satya 2: Review

Satya 2 isn’t the worst Ram Gopal Varma film this year, but audiences may end up rejecting it as emphatically as they did The Attacks of 26/11. It'll remind them that Varma once made films as good as Satya, even though his latest has little to do with that film beyond the fact that both are set in the Mumbai underworld and the director probably thought it a good idea to revisit the site of his greatest triumph on its 15th anniversary. Varma is clearly daring audiences to compare him against his younger self.

Like the earlier film, this one also begins with a shadowy man, Satya (Puneet Singh Ratn), coming in from another town; this time, however, his arrival is accompanied by a voice-over which informs us that he will revolutionise the Mumbai crime world. So much for suspense. We watch his steady, unimpeded rise – aided by the dumbest, dullest set of stock villains assembled in a long time. As Satya goes from right-hand man to a crooked builder to lord of his own crime syndicate, which he calls Company, you’d expect the film to explain why he’s doing all this. But beyond a vague mention of a dead Naxalite father, we’re offered little insight into his psyche.

After churning out gangster films for years, Varma seems to have bought into the self-serving arguments of his antagonists. It’s one thing to have Satya think he’s running a Robin Hood-style outfit, quite another to allow that opinion to go entirely unchallenged. A lot of time is spent trying to convince us that the organisation he’s building is cutting-edge, but his methods – poisoning, exploding ear piece – have all the nostalgia value of a Vijay Anand thriller. Not that you should take anything the film says at face value. “In our organisation, we won’t use shooters,” Satya declares. Five minutes later, two people have been shot.

Ratn’s performance is a single note played in a minor key. Physically unimposing, he glares his way through scenes, a humourless variation on the “reasonable gangster" archetype. Anaika Soti, as the love interest, overcompensates for his lack of emotion, biting her lip and widening her eyes as if she’s trying to channel Sridevi in Sadma. The camera, meanwhile, is on its own trip – wandering off for repeated aerial shots, looking up from under a translucent chess board. There’s a brief moment of surreal wit when a smoking gun barrel peeks through a hole in a billboard. But that’s lifted from Once Upon a Time in the West – the kind of film which now seems beyond Varma.

Related: Piece I did for GQ on 15 Years of Satya.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

I’m sticking with Lou

I’ll be your mirror 
Reflect what you are, in case you don’t know” 

Lou Reed, who died earlier this week from liver disease, didn’t just write these lines. He lived them. Throughout his 50 odd years in music, he held a mirror up to those who rarely got a second thought – Jacks in corsets and Janes in vests, the twisted and unkind. From 1965 to 1970, he fronted one of the most uncompromising bands in rock history. Brian Eno once said that while only a handful of people bought the first Velvet Underground album, those who did went out and started their own bands.

Nothing prepares you for the first time you hear The Velvet Underground & Nico. After the deceptive calm of “Sunday Morning”, “I’m Waiting for the Man” literally pounces on you; Sterling Morrison hacking away on rhythm guitar, John Cale comping furiously on piano, Maureen Tucker banging on the tom-toms, Reed unleashing stinging curlicues on guitar and singing about meeting his connection. All hell pretty much breaks loose after that. “Venus in Furs” talks about “the whip, in love not given lightly”, and I have vivid memories of hearing “Run Run Run” for the first time and wincing when Reed’s guitar made that horrible screech after the second chorus. Two tracks later, there’s “Heroin”, after which nothing’s ever the same again.

Reed’s work with the Velvets – singing, playing lead guitar and writing all the songs – would be enough to earn him a place in history. Yet, after the band dissolved, he began a solo career which resulted in 22 studio albums. Neil Young aside, there isn’t another artist who, after leaving a seminal band, went on to have a career this productive and unpredictable. In 1972, he released Transformer, which spawned the unlikely hit “Walk on the Wild Side”. (David Bowie, who produced the album, said that Reed’s earlier work “gave [glam rockers] the environment in which to put our more theatrical vision”.) Three years later, he dropped Metal Machine Music, 64 minutes of vocal-less guitar feedback, on an unsuspecting public. Having lost a majority of his audience, Reed proceeded, over the next four decades, to reel them in and lose them again, with records ranging from the commercial (Mistral) to the personal (New York) to the far-out (the Edgar Allen Poe-inspired The Raven).

I want to be a singer like Lou Reed,” sang Frank Black of The Pixies. He wasn’t the only one – and yet, by conventional standards, Reed’s voice was singularly unimpressive. His delivery was flat, deadpan. When he got excited, he emitted the odd gurgle or yelp, but most of the time there was just this dry monotone. Luckily, Reed was the right singer for the kind of songs he wrote. It’s difficult to imagine his streetwise lyrics being ‘sung’ instead of narrated, as Reed would invariably do. The flatness of his tone also meant that the tiniest of inflections – the way he stretches the word ‘street’ in “There She Goes Again” – were magnified. And if his voice was a limited instrument, Reed’s guitar playing had boundless range and daring: hear his skittering runs on “European Son”, the gentle noodling on “Stephanie Says”, and the muscular stomp of his cover of Bob Dylan’s “Foot of Pride”. Even Hendrix didn’t do as much to legitimise noise in popular music.

Reed’s greatest legacy, though, was the way he broadened rock’s vocabulary. He wrote about shooting up and going down, gender confusion and S&M. The subject matter was sordid, but the tone was non-judgemental, reportorial. It was part-Genet, part-Burroughs; “gritty in the way New York streets were gritty,” as Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo put it. But Reed had a romantic side as well, searching for salvation in music (“Rock & Roll”), companionship (“Perfect Day”) and his city, New York (“Dirty Blvd.”).

Unlike Dylan, always at the forefront of whatever was breaking, Reed was usually ahead of the times. Three years after VU folded up, the New York Dolls took their down-and-dirty aesthetic and ran with it, paving the way for punk rock. Metal Machine Music was seen as an elaborate joke in 1975, but it’s easy to draw a line from it to the feedback arias of Sonic Youth and My Bloody Valentine. Reed was also one of the first songwriters to write frankly about gay and transgender subjects, making him a forerunner of glam rock. He remained unpredictable till the end – collaborating with Metallica, vigorously defending Kanye West’s Yeezus.

Though he was no actor, one of my favourite Reed moments is from a 1983 film called Get Crazy. Reed cameos as a version of himself, an ‘anti-social recluse... dropped by six record companies’. In one scene, he walks straight into traffic while trying to work out a lyric. This remains my abiding image of Reed – boldly striding forth, his music connected to the streets, ignoring the criticisms of passersby.

This piece appeared in The Indian Express.

The Good Road: DVD Review

If The Good Road lived up to its premise, who knows how it might have turned out? As it stands, India’s entry for the 2014 Oscars is an intriguing idea that’s executed, for the most part, only passably well. A young boy is separated from his parents while journeying through Kutch, and is picked up by a trucker duo carrying contraband. The manner in which this scenario is achieved is less than plausible. How likely is it that a mother and father might drive for several miles without realising their child isn’t in the car? 

Once young Aditya is with the truckers, the film splits into three narrative strands: the boy’s journey with his reluctant guardians; his parents’ (Ajay Gehi and Sonali Kulkarni) frantic search; and a third storyline about a young girl who’s trying to get from Bombay to her village, but who instead finds herself at a supremely creepy rural brothel. There’s no particular reason for this last story strand, except to introduce unnecessary contrasts between the well-adjusted city boy who, predictably, brings out protective instincts in the taciturn truckers, and the poor girl who can’t seem to get a break.   

The Good Road is dialogue-light, and Correa and his crew – cinematographer Amitabha Singh, sound designer Resul Pookutty – fill in the silences with a few moments of stark beauty. The director also has an eye for the idiosyncratic image – like a man perched on a milestone like a bird, smoking a beedi –which helps distract from the dullness of the script. I found myself thinking back to Mrinal Sen’s 1969 Bhuvan Shome, another city-meets village film set in Kutch. Sen’s film was as high-art as Correa’s, but it also had humour and pace; qualities The Good Road is sorely lacking in.

If The Good Road didn’t make a late-innings veer towards the sentimental, it might have ended up somewhat like the elliptical American road movies of the ’70s. Instead, abstractness and sentimentality collide in a dialogue exchange in the film’s final moments. “It’s a big country with many trucks and many highways”, one driver says. “Boss, I will never be able to forget this boy”, his partner replies. If it needs to be spelt out, the battle’s already lost.