Sunday, February 19, 2017

REVIEW 467: THE GHAZI ATTACK


Release date:
February 17, 2017
Director:
Sankalp Reddy
Cast:



Language:
Rana Daggubati, Kay Kay Menon, Atul Kulkarni, Rahul Singh, Satyadev Kancharana, Taapsee Pannu, Om Puri, Nassar, Milind Gunaji.
Released in two versions: Telugu and Hindi-cum-English. This is a review of the latter, which is narrated by Amitabh Bachchan. The Telugu version is narrated by Chiranjeevi. The film has also been dubbed in Tamil. Suriya Sivakumar provides the narration in that one.


Whoa!

And again, whoa!

Debutant writer-director Sankalp Reddy’s The Ghazi Attack is that rare special-effects-heavy Indian war film starring actors who get their body language right, do not look like little boys playing cops ‘n’ robbers, do not sing romantic songs in their heads in the midst of battle and features SFX that do not compel a critic to qualify “it is good” with the addendum usually used in these cases, “…by Indian standards”. The Ghazi Attack’s effects are good, full stop.

Released simultaneously in Telugu and Hindi-English versions, this is a highly fictionalised interpretation of the Indian take on events in the Bay of Bengal in 1971, leading to the sinking of the PNS Ghazi, a submarine of the Pakistan Navy.

In the real world, India’s official position is that Ghazi was brought down by an Indian ship. Pakistan holds that the sub sank when it inadvertently entered a minefield it had itself laid just days earlier. As Vice Admiral G.M. Hiranandani (retd) says in his book Transition to Triumph, quoted in a detailed article by Vipin Vijayan on Rediff: “The truth about the Ghazi, which remains on what the submarine community calls the ‘eternal parole’, lies somewhere between the Indian and Pakistani versions of the sinking but no one knows exactly where.”

Reddy’s film zeroes in on the Indian side of the story. Kay Kay Menon plays Captain Rann Vijay Singh, the man in charge of the Indian submarine S21 which is sent off on a top-secret mission to the Bay of Bengal in November 1971. Singh is both brilliant and brash, remarkably efficient yet a loose cannon prone to skirt around orders whenever he can. His reputation prompts his bosses (played by the late Om Puri and Nassar) to send Lt-Commander Arjun Varma (Rana Daggubati) to accompany him on this mission and keep his wild side in check.

When the film opens, the India-Pak war of 1971 has not yet begun. The two countries are on tenterhooks though, with refugees pouring into India from what was then East Pakistan. A single impetuous act could lead to full-scale aggression. Like Singh, Varma is brave and brilliant, but he prefers to wait for intelligence confirmation of what his instincts tell him is true. This is why his seniors consider him essential to their scheme.

Populism might have demanded that the film should cheer for Singh and diminish Varma. It is a measure of Reddy’s maturity that he does nothing of the sort.

Atul Kulkarni plays S21’s second-in-command, S. Devaraj, a soft-spoken yet firm man whose loyalty lies with Singh despite his brusque ways.

The bulk of The Ghazi Attack takes place underwater inside S21. Far from being constrained by the lack of visual variation, Reddy along with his editor A. Sreekar Prasad, director of photography Madhie and sound designer Tapas Nayak use it to their advantage, tapping the claustrophobic space to discreetly magnify every iota of tension between the characters. K’s background score is a perfect addition to the mix.

The production quality is first-rate all around. A special word here for production designer Shivam Rao, the tech teams at Eva Motion Studios in Hyderabad and B2H Studios in Chennai.

Hopefully there are defence experts and scientists out there who will watch The Ghazi Attack and tell us whether the naval protocol being followed here is authentic or the depiction of the vessel’s functioning is scientifically accurate. To a non-expert, the acting and writing (story and screenplay: Reddy, dialogues: Azad Alam) make it all seem credible. The verbal exchanges may be meaningless mumbo jumbo, for all I know, but none of it sounds like unconvincing gibberish or off-puttingly esoteric, deliberately dense showing off.

More to the point, The Ghazi Attack is designed to make us care less about the technicalities and more about the human instincts and reflexes that come into play in this challenging environment.

When the film is being straight-laced and matter of fact, it is bloody darned awesome. There is a special place in hell for those who celebrate war, but given that wars do take place, this film – for the most part – is a lesson in how they should be depicted on screen. While the going’s good, the no-frills narrative is so well-paced and business-like that it feels like the real deal.

Reddy largely sticks to his guns with this storytelling style, making so much of The Ghazi Attack entertaining, memorable and unique on the Indian cinemascape. He should have held his ground all the way, because the moments in which he departs from his to-the-point tone are the very moments when he loses his grip on the film.

While his hands are fixed firmly on the reins, The Ghazi Attack is a thrilling action adventure, the enjoyment of which is tempered by the awareness that it draws on a very grim reality.

It flounders though in its depiction of the Pakistani vessel. Ghazi’s commander Razzaq (Rahul Singh) is the only identifiable individual on the sub. While he does not snarl out lines of the sort Pakistanis might yell at Sunny Deol, he is certainly a charmless chap, unlike the Indians. The film makes no bones about its suggestion that the Indian lot are level-headed, cool customers driven purely by a selfless desire to keep us safe whereas the Paki dude is hot-headed despite his brightness, and thus easily manipulated by the enemy who understands that he is led primarily by his deep-seated hatred for India. Uff!

The Ghazi Attack flounders again when it enters maudlin territory with the commander’s personal story and an awkwardly handled round of deshbhakti in the end, far removed from the tone of most of the film. An earlier scene in which Jana Gana Mana and Saare Jahaan Se Acchha are sung works because it is relevant to the plot, but Round 2 with the anthem is a contrivance. Those wailing religious chants when tragedy strikes are also terribly jarring.

Kulkarni is on the mark with his acting. Menon is intermittently pulled down by the soppy treatment of his character’s back story and the over-the-top writing of his attitude to authority.

The headline-grabber of the cast is Rana Daggubati, who is so handsome in a uniform that he made me want to weep. Be still my beating heart.

…But seriously, Daggubati’s looks and strapping physique are rivalled by his well-controlled turn as Arjun Varma. His restraint helps him effectively portray a man of calm temperament yet not shorn of feelings, compassion, stress or off-the-book actions in a charged atmosphere.

The stand-out artiste of the well-chosen supporting cast is Satyadev Kancharana playing Rajeev, a sonar operator on S21. Kancharana is an interesting combination of charismatic presence and natural talent. He made me care for Rajeev despite the man’s limited role on S21.

Taapsee Pannu, on the other hand, is wasted in an insignificant role. As an East Pakistani rescued from a shipwreck by the submarine, she does nothing but lurk in the background. Why was this character written into the script? Her inclusion certainly does not divert attention from the fact that India’s defence establishment is a boys’ club even today, that it was more so back then.

Pannu’s role is not only demeaning to her but also counter-productive to the cause of gender representation in cinema. Tokenism in the name of diversity is as offensive as exclusion itself.

This along with the uncomfortable handling of patriotism and some of the emotion subtracts from the overall impact of The Ghazi Attack, especially because most of the latter two are rolled out post-interval, thus dominating the parting impression of the film.

Still, there is much more to like than not. A toast please to the technical finesse attained by Reddy and his top-notch crew. No artificially pumped up patriotism is needed when a film makes viewers so damned proud of the work their fellow Bharatvaasis have done on it.

This then is what The Ghazi Attack adds up to: 70% cracking suspense (which is remarkable since we know the outcome from the start), 30% clumsy deshbhakti and mawkishness. War is not something any decent human being should celebrate. What this uncommon film achieves though for war films in India is worth a champagne glass or two.

Rating (out of five stars): **3/4

CBFC Rating (India):
UA
Running time:
125 minutes


Saturday, February 18, 2017

REVIEW 466: EZRA


Release date:
Kerala: February 10, 2017. 
All India: February 17.
Director:
Jay K
Cast:




Language:
Prithviraj Sukumaran, Priya Anand, Sudev Nair, Sujith Shanker, Ann Sheetal, Vijayaraghavan, Tovino Thomas, Pratap K. Pothen, Babu Antony, Bharath Dabholkar, Alencier Ley Lopez, Thara Kalyan
Malayalam


Dybbuk: from Jewish folklore, an evil spirit that possesses a living human with malicious intent

Hamsa: a hand-shaped amulet, traced variously to Jewish, Christian and Islamic origins; believed to ward off the evil eye

Ruchim: spirits in Judaic myth

If you wish to fully understand these terms, you could either turn to an encyclopedia or watch the new Malayalam film Ezra, a supernatural thriller starring Prithviraj Sukumaran and Priya Anand. The pre-release chatter surrounding Ezra seemed to suggest that it would provide insights into Jewish culture in Kerala. Taken at its face value, the film does quite the opposite, seeming to exoticise rather than familiarise audiences with the community. Look closer though and you may see Ezra’s larger purpose: its subliminal messaging on forbidden love across the ages, how the more things change the more they remain the same and ultimately, love conquering all divides.

The blend of modern city life, mythology and under-stated politics rooted in the tragic tale of a young Jew from pre-Independence Kerala becomes absorbing in the hands of debutant director Jay K.

The events in the film kick off when the last living Jew in Kerala passes away and the state media is abuzz with talk of the end of an era. Meanwhile in Mumbai, Ranjan Mathew (Sukumaran) and his wife Priya Raghuram (Anand) prepare to shift to Kochi where he must take charge of a giant nuclear waste disposal plant run by a company he co-founded.

Once there, they move into a spacious villa which Priya packs with antiques. Her acquisitions include a box from the dead man’s house which – unknown to her – is already connected to a recent local murder. When the couple (expectedly) starts hearing strange sounds and seeing a scary figure in their house, they seek help from medics, the police and finally, religious folk.

Ezra is not the kind of horror flick that is replete with mammoth scares. The film’s USP is its low-key tone and all-pervading feeling of foreboding. Jay K is unflinching in his purpose, never once slackening the sense of impending doom that permeates every nook of the narrative. Editor Vivek Harshan and cinematographer Sujith Vaassudev are able partners in this mission.

When you shoot a geographical landscape as stunning as God’s Own Country, it must be tempting to capture it in all its explosively colourful beauty. Vaassudev’s achievement in Ezra is that he holds back, giving us instead a Kerala of grays and muted shades and at one point, sepia tones, still spectacular of course, but hauntingly atmospheric too in this avatar. He also keeps strategically switching vantage points, sometimes standing with the audience, sometimes with Priya or Ranjan, sometimes seeming to stand by the spectre in their house as it watches these two go about their business and sometimes watching them through the eyes of other characters.

The other leading light of Ezra is its production design, in particular in the flashback to an earlier Kerala and in the present, the intimidatingly grand interiors of Ranjan and Priya’s home.

It is all very eerie and filled with dread for what is to come. Though the film uses familiar motifs from the horror genre – a spook in a mirror, glazed eyes, the attic of an old house, a wild-haired child (who, by the way, remains unexplained) – it does so sparingly.

If you get down to thinking about it, much of the paranormal stuff is silly not just for atheists, agnostics and cynics – as is the case with most such films – but for other logical minds too. (Spoiler alert) How, for instance, did they so quickly find 10 Jewish tourists willing to expose themselves to an invisible monster late one night in Kochi? Why does a maid, who shows no signs of understanding English until then, watch a Hollywood hit? A couple of the red herrings strewn around (that maid’s aggressive behaviour, a rabbi’s initial weirdness) are grating in their obviousness. (Spoiler alert ends)

The film’s success lies in the fact that it leaves a viewer with little time to dwell on these and other loopholes while battling the unrelenting heebie-jeebies.

Ezra’s other USP is that its scares stand shoulder to shoulder with a solid story. The theme of inter-community romances runs right through the film, and has great resonance in this age of ‘love jihad’ campaigns and overtly, publicly expressed prejudice. Jay K’s storytelling style is non-preachy, but the commentary is unmistakable.  

Hints of Ranjan and Priya’s liberalism are also unobtrusively scattered about. Theirs is a mixed marriage (he is Christian, she is Hindu) but neither has imposed their faith on the other. A passing reference reveals that she has not changed her surname. In such a film, it would have been nicer to see evidence of Priya’s career as an interior designer rather than a mere passing mention of it in the midst of her wifely activities. Perhaps next time, Jay K?

In terms of performances, Sukumaran stands out for his conviction in a genre that often has actors come off looking silly. He even manages to pull off an exorcism without going too over the top or being too cliched considering the scores of such scenes we have seen down the decades. Anand does not do quite as well in scenes in which we are supposed to believe she is possessed, and Sujith Shanker playing a rabbi falls prey to the deliberately confusing writing of his character – can’t blame either of the actors though.

The rest of the supporting cast is sturdy. Sudev Nair is especially memorable in the very poignant flashback.

While the detailing in the film’s sound design is impressive, the decibel levels needed to be brought down a couple of notches in several scenes, considering that as viewers we are now accustomed to standard efforts at manipulation with loud noises and background scores in supernatural films.

So yes, Ezra is not perfect. Overall though, it is an unusual and thankfully not superficial experience. Without straying too far from the conventions of its chosen genre, the film conjures up enough novelty value to remain interesting throughout. We are not a country that does horror very well. A hat tip then to Jay K for defying the norm.

Footnote about the subtitles: A hat tip to Vivek Ranjit too for remembering to subtitle the signage in Ezra. Too many writers of subs forget that if a viewer cannot understand a language in its spoken form, chances are they cannot read it either. One suggestion for Ranjit, since he seems to care enough: keeping in mind the needs of hearing-impaired viewers, next time please also subtitle English dialogues. Almost no one does that.

Rating (out of five): **3/4

CBFC Rating (India):
U
Running time:
147 minutes

This review has also been published on Firstpost: