Friday, December 19, 2014

REVIEW 310: PK


Release date (India):
December 19, 2014
Director:
Rajkumar Hirani
Cast:


Language:
Aamir Khan, Anushka Sharma, Sanjay Dutt, Sushant Singh Rajput, Boman Irani, Parikshet Sahani
Hindi


Rajkumar Hirani’s PK is what Umesh Shukla’s OMG Oh My God! might have been if the chap questioning organised religion had been an innocent extra-terrestrial instead of a cynical human.

PK is what Hirani’s own Lagey Raho Munnabhai might have been if all that worldly wisdom had flowed from an artless alien rather than a golden-hearted goon inspired by visions of Gandhiji.    

What then is PK? It’s a film about an ET called PK (Aamir Khan) who comes to Earth to research human life, and gets stuck because the device to call back his space ship is stolen as soon as he lands. As he figures out a way to recover it, he discovers the complexities of life on this planet, the difficulties of communicating with creatures who don’t speak their minds and, above all, the God fraud. He is aided in his quest to return home by journalist Jagat Janini Sahni a.k.a. Jaggu (Anushka Sharma) who has a painful history of her own.

PK is delivered in light-hearted packaging, but make no mistake about this: it is serious fare. Hindu-Muslim tensions, the so-called ‘love jihad’ campaign, fraudulent babas, scare-mongering religious leaders, Indo-Pak suspicions, blind faith, media sensationalism and above all else, the unexpected ways in which the best of us are unwittingly influenced by the prejudices of others – Hirani and his co-writer Abhijat Joshi have something to say about it all.

Shantanu Moitra’s music is attractive, the songs are smoothly woven into the narrative and nicely shot, the dialogues and lyrics are amusing and incisive, the settings are eye-catching, the costumes are colourful, the pace is unflagging and without being overwhelmingly so, there is no let-up in PK’s glossy feel throughout. None of this subtracts from its courageous core.

Mainstream Hindi films are notorious for community stereotyping. It is a measure of Hirani and Joshi’s skills that for the most part, PK skips cliches. Two populist stereotypes merit a mention though, since they depart from the film’s otherwise across-the-board slamming of religions and seek to subtly establish distinguishing marks. First, a terrorist group aims to protect its “qaum” in the film – we are told this without their religion being named. The use of the word “qaum” is clearly an effort to reference Islam without openly saying so, which makes this an instance of double triteness since it perpetuates the prevalent “all terrorists are Muslims” assumption plus links a language to a religion. Second, Christianity has many weaknesses, yet PK chooses to highlight the penchant for conversion, thus playing to the gallery with the prevalent falsehood that Christians and Muslims are the only ones who seek to convert those of other faiths.

I suppose Team PK needed something to excuse itself in case of an attack by saffron groups complaining about the slamming of Hindu religious practices in the film. Besides, Muslims and Christians are not guiltless in these matters, so let us let this pass after a mention.  

A couple of costume and language stereotypes elsewhere indicate disappointing laziness. For instance, in a multi-religious assembly, the Christian is the only one who speaks English. Yet, the writers are certainly not uninformed, as is evident from the fact that PK is one of those rare Bollywood films that uses the Hindi word for a church (girja) and extends itself beyond the Hindu-Muslim-Sikh-Isaai line-up to include a Jain. Little touches that merit big applause!

The film’s major flaw though is its all-or-nothing stance on religionists. Is it possible that there is not a single preacher out there who is a good soul? PK’s absence of nuance in this matter is in line with Hirani’s 3 Idiots according to which India’s education system is absolutely, unutterably bad without any redeeming factors whatsoever. Caricatures (like that tacky scene featuring a Hindu baba in saffron robes) are so much easier to sell than subtlety, are they not? Moderation is so much harder to popularise than extreme positions.

As our alien hero might say, hum frustrate-iya gaye hai ee sab se, because this film has so much else to recommend it. In the present atmosphere in India, it’s nothing short of bravery to openly discuss the failings of religion, and PK manages to do this in a highly entertaining fashion. This would not have been possible without the excellent cast headlined by Aamir who does not for a second allow PK’s distinctive body language and hilarious Bhojpuri accent to dwarf his character’s sincerity and guileless charm. That wide-eyed, big-eared look that seemed so odd in the promos is a perfect fit within this screenplay. And it’s heartening to see a superstar gutsy enough to allow the camera to let him come off looking physically less attractive than a co-star, yet Aamir does that throughout, but especially in that scene in which the awkwardly proportioned PK dances with Jaggu of the model-like figure and endless legs. Bravo!

With PK, Anushka proves yet again that she is one of the most dependable mainstream heroines of her generation in Bollywood. Someone please tell her too that she’s naturally pretty and should not have made those distractingly obvious alterations to her face. The actress shares a warm chemistry with Sushant Singh Rajput who makes his mark despite the briefness of his role. The rest of the cast too are spot on. As for the ending – ah, how it made me smile.

PK is not as brilliant as Hirani’s Munnabhai 1&2, but it’s still an excellent film that throws up surprises every step of the way. It had me laughing out loud then crying like a baby. It broke my heart then raised my spirits. If I were a Bollywood writer, I might have ended this review with: Lagey raho, Rajubhai. I’ll just leave it at: Thank you for the Christmas gift, Team PK.

Rating (out of five): ***1/2

CBFC Rating (India):
U/A
Running time:
153 minutes


Saturday, December 13, 2014

REVIEW 309: THE HOBBIT – THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES (3D)

Release date (India):
December 12, 2014
Director:
Peter Jackson
Cast:


Language:
Most people who were in the earlier Hobbit films & some from the LOTR series
English


The final Hobbit film in Peter Jackson’s second Tolkien trilogy is a magnificent spectacle. It is also a magnificent bore.

The special effects and camerawork are impeccable no doubt, but after a point – with a handful of exceptional sequences – all that it is is more of what we’ve already seen ever since Jackson released his first film in The Lord Of The Rings (LOTR) trilogy in 2001. I mean, how many more times will we gasp at those same mythical creatures with a few additions per film, those panoramic views of breathtaking natural scenery, those spectacular kingdoms, the dragon Smaug from the last film, the rivers of gold stashed away in the innards of a mountain? We get it, Mr Jackson – you are a king of visual wonderment. We get it too that you are in love with J.R.R. Tolkien’s books. Now stop it, please. Unless you can show us something vastly different to the eye from what’s gone before, do get back to telling us a story, please.

For the very few people left in this world coming in late on this, The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies is the third film Jackson has derived from Tolkien’s fantasy novel The Hobbit, first published almost a century back. This book was the precursor to Tolkien’s LOTR trilogy, which was made into three films by Jackson before he began exploring The Hobbit in three parts (The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug and this latest film, The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies). Ergo, Jackson has worked in reverse order with this. 

The Battle Of The Five Armies begins with Smaug attacking the humans of Lake Town to punish them for giving refuge to the dwarves. Bard attacks the marauding creature and takes off with his people to claim the share promised to them by the dwarves from the treasure of the Lonely Mountain, so that they can rebuild their lives. Whatever little is left of the plot is geared towards gathering armies of orcs, elves, dwarves and humans at the mountain for that one final clash of the title.

After the initial set-up for the battle, there’s little by way of story or narrative depth, and the battle is painfully stretched. It goes without saying that the special effects are of high quality (C’mon, that’s a given! This is Peter Jackson we’re talking about!) but most of it has been recycled from the earlier films and there’s little here that’s conceptually innovative and exclusive to this particular production.

It starts with promise though. The deadly Smaug is far more effectively explored here than in the second Hobbit film. The initial scenes of the dragon raining fire on Lake Town are heart-stoppingly beautiful and handled with a difference. There’s another lovely scene during the battle when a massive stone structure is collapsing, and the elf Legolas uses the falling rocks as a stairway-like bridge across a chasm, stepping on each one just in the nick of time before it descends too far down. And during a hand-to-hand fight on thin ice between the dwarf king Thorin Oakenshield and Azog, there is thought invested in that one moment designed to make the audience chuckle and go, “Oh, I didn’t think of that.”

Three sequences in an entire two-and-a-half hour film, the familiar strains of Howard Shore’s lovely background score which remains elevating and a mood song playing over the end credits ain’t enough though to justify the existence of the film for any reason other than the fact that Tolkien’s classics are bestsellers even today, that the LOTR trilogy was an international money-spinner and that the Tolkien-Jackson brand value is expected to make even this one a box-office success. Those are calculations that corporate honchos make with all eyes on bottomlines and balance sheets – I have no argument with them.

My argument is with the film maker in Peter Jackson. With him, the bottomline is this: there is nothing in The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies that explains why these three Hobbit films could not have been condensed into a single, incredibly fantastical, richly imagined film.

Rating (out of five): **

CBFC Rating (India):
U/A
Running time:
MPAA Rating (US):
147 minutes
PG-13 (for extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence, and frightening images)
Release date in the US:
December 17, 2014


Sunday, December 7, 2014

REVIEW 308: BHOPAL – A PRAYER FOR RAIN

Release date (India):
December 5, 2014
Director:
Ravi Kumar
Cast:




Language:
Rajpal Yadav, Tannishtha Chatterjee, Martin Sheen, Kal Penn, Mischa Barton, Manoj Joshi, Joy Sengupta, Fagun Thakrar, Vineet Kumar, David Brooks
Hindi



Bhopal: A Prayer For Rain is an account of the events in the run-up to the 1984 gas leak that killed thousands in the Central Indian town of the title. Over 10,000 people are estimated to have died and countless maimed in what is considered the world’s worst human-made industrial disaster. This film aims at chronicling the negligence that led to the tragedy, fuelled by collusion between the US’ Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) and Indian politicians.

The dead are not just statistics. Bhopal brings us living, breathing human beings in the form of the impoverished rickshaw-puller Dilip (Rajpal Yadav) who takes up a job in the UCC factory, his wife Leela (Tannishtha Chatterjee), the local journalist Motwani (Kal Penn) who is determined to expose UCC for storing dangerous chemicals in hazardous conditions, and Rekha, the widow of the worker Rakesh who was killed by one of those chemicals much before the leak. 

When the film is telling the story of the slum dwellers around that Bhopal factory, it is moving and realistic. The poignancy is exacerbated by the fact that, knowing what we know about the night of December 2, 1984, we assume they will be dead by the end of the film.

We grow attached to Dilip. And that hurts.

This much is achieved even though Bhopal makes some questionable casting choices: Fagun Thakrar as Rekha does not look like a Bhopali slumdweller, and try though he might, the talented Kal Penn is unable to mask that American accent (he was perhaps chosen to add to the film’s international cast with Martin Sheen and a wooden Mischa Barton playing a foreign journalist).

However, Rajpal Yadav as Dilip is a perfect pick. As the story rolls along, Dilip realises that the factory is unsafe. He can’t afford to leave though, because of his desperate circumstances. Dilip epitomises the tragedy of Bhopal – of abject poverty, of how corrupt netas and a heartless business empire exploited that poverty.

In the portrayal of Dilip, his milieu, Motwani’s crusade and Indian politicians, the film can’t be faulted. The portrayal of the UCC players from overseas is extremely troublesome though.

There are three of them in the film: Carbide CEO Warren Anderson (Martin Sheen), Edward “the accounts guy”, and Shane Miller (David Brooks) who is the company’s fixer in Bhopal.

They are the big bosses whose larger machinations controlled the goings-on at this UCC plant in India, leading to the leak of the deadly methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas. Yet, the film makes every effort to make them likeable to viewers, while giving the culpable Indians – the factory supervisor Choudhary (Vineet Kumar) and the bribe-taking Madhya Pradesh politician (Satish Kaushik) – a sleazy air about them.

The film’s American Nice Guy No. 1 is Shane. He may be shown delivering a bribe, yet he is the voice of everyone’s conscience, constantly slamming Edward’s ruthlessness.

Nice Guy No. 2 is Anderson. The Carbide CEO is shown repeatedly justifying negligence at UCC Bhopal; he knows that cost cutting at the factory has translated into unskilled labour being used to run machines requiring expertise; one assumes he knows that the plant’s air-conditioning has been turned off despite the in-house safety officer’s protests; yet Bhopal works hard to get us to like him. The dominant image of Anderson from the film is as a sweet – even if patronising  white man who stops to speak to the little son of an Indian household employee; a jolly old, hard-working, all-American blue collar worker who rose to riches from humble beginnings.

These men did not have to be portrayed as cliched villains with fangs and horns. Of course they could have had with shades of grey. But what purpose was served by having Sheen play the Carbide chief with a charming, avuncular air of benevolence?

After watching Bhopal twice, I went to the official website in search of an answer and found it in a speech delivered by David Brooks, who is also the film’s co-writer with director Ravi Kumar.

“…The intention,” he says, “was to create…a human puzzle, that exposes the big issues of multinational corporate governance – how business and government negotiate disaster. The film explores the small details of the individual human decisions that made up those complex problems. The ‘evil corporation’ is too easy. We wanted to ask the audience “What you would do if you were Anderson? Or Dilip for that matter?”…”

Dear Mr Brooks, “The ‘evil corporation’ is too easy” only if you blame them and them alone. And are you actually trying to quietly apportion even a tiny measure of blame to the miserably poor Dilip?

Brooks further says: “This is about a nation and how it governed its people…”

Ah, we get it now. Just as Anderson squarely blames UCIL (Union Carbide India Limited) in the film, Brooks appears to favour blaming the Indian government. Of course the role of corrupt Indian politicians in the entire saga is inexcusable and unforgivable. But their amorality can’t be UCC’s excuse. What point is being made by this film when it goes gentle on them?

Brooks continues: “If Anderson and his ‘Carbiders’ could be shown as three-dimensional, even likeable, then their two-dimensional corporate response to the disaster could really shock.”

Err... mission unaccomplished.

Bhopal: A Prayer For Rain pulls at the heartstrings with its portrayal of the victims of the gas tragedy. It manages to explain what’s going on at the factory without drowning us in jargon. It effectively builds up a sense of foreboding about the impending disaster as chink after chink is revealed in the running of Carbide’s Bhopal plant.

That being said, the film’s simultaneous effort to whitewash the wrongdoings of Carbide’s American bosses is repugnant to say the least.  

Rating (out of five): **

CBFC Rating (India):

U   
Running time:
103 minutes