Monday, May 21, 2018

REVIEW 604: SCHOOL DIARY

Release date:
May 18, 2018
Director:
M. Hajamoinu
Cast:


Language:
Bhama Arun, Mamitha Baiju, Anagha Nair, Diya, Vismaya Vishwanath, Indrans, Balaji, Reena Bashir, Ashkar Saudan  
Malayalam                                                 


In future, when almost 19 minutes of a film have passed and all that has been covered are the acknowledgments (which are even longer in this case than in most Mollywood productions) followed by opening credits monotonously playing out against a pretty green landscape followed by a song introducing the female leads who dance awkwardly to some very rudimentary choreography in the picturesque countryside, treat that as a warning that worse is to come.

Writer-director M. Hajamoinu’s School Diary is the sort of bad film that critics dream of while praying for small mercies: so bad that it is entertaining. It would probably have gone unnoticed if an icon had not participated in it and promoted it. M.G. Sreekumar, two-time National Award winner, three-time Kerala State Award winner and long-time singing voice of Mohanlal, is the film’s music director and has a cameo as himself in an extended scene in which he is honoured by the primary characters. He also released the poster of School Diary.

Chetta, just one question: why?

School Diary revolves around five Class 12 students in a school in Kerala. They are Aarcha, Indu, Rima, Diya and Yamuna. Aarcha has been covered in the news media because she wrote a poem called Aksharamaalayil Amma (Mother In The Alphabet), which is being considered for inclusion in the state’s school syllabus.

These youngsters are out to make a difference in the world. So they farm vegetables for poor folk. And Aarcha comes up with the idea of having a diary in which kids in their school can confide their problems that staff and student leaders then will try to solve – an idea that is treated by her peers and faculty as worthy of a Nobel for Novelty.

Along the way the girls encounter two villains. Never mind what they do. Point is, School Diary is not just a case study in amateurish filmmaking, it is also a poorly disguised effort to appear progressive while masking its conservative core.

In one of the opening scenes, when students and teachers are discussing Aarcha’s new concept diary, their principal makes an off-hand comment about how cellphones are spoiling young people. Uff!

In one of the film’s silliest scenes, pandering no doubt to the prevailing chest-thumping nationalism dominating the Indian political discourse, a bunch of people in a cafeteria stand up on hearing the national anthem being sung in a nearby schoolyard, the camera then intercuts between the school and the café, continuing to do so until the anthem is over! This interlude plays no part whatsoever in taking the story forward. I repeat, no part.

It was around this point in School Diary that I started giggling to myself, in the theatre where I watched it as one of just two audience members. The silliness continued throughout the film. The halfway mark, for instance, was announced not with “interval” or “intermission” flashing on screen, as is the norm, but with the words “tension break”.


Despite positioning School Diary as a woman-centric affair in its opening scene, Hajamoinu reveals his true patriarchal colours when he ultimately places the baton of Protector of Women in the hands of a male teacher in Aarcha & Co’s school. I laughed out loud in that moment when this gentleman, who appears ordinary until then, suddenly rips off his shirt to reveal a bulked-up, muscular torso in a red-bordered black baniyan before proceeding to beat up the bad guy.

A quick Net search reveals that School Diary’s shirtless wonder is Anvar Sadath, also its producer. Sadath has generously featured footage of himself from that body-baring scene for 23 seconds in the film’s 1 minute 35 seconds long trailer, although he only plays a supporting character. He has also brought out a couple of posters in which he is the dominant visual, not the five heroines.

Of the young leads, Bhama Arun playing Aarcha looks like she may be watchable under less tacky direction. It makes no sense though to critique the lot since I doubt even a Dadasaheb Phalke Award-worthy veteran’s skills would survive such a misadventure. The music of School Diary is better than the rest of the film, but is still not as sophisticated as you might expect, considering the high-voltage stalwart to whom it is credited.

To be fair to M.G. Sreekumar, he is not the only respected name associated with School Diary. The Kerala State Award winning actor Indrans, one of Malayalam cinema’s best, also stars in it. This, by the way, is not a phenomenon unique to Mollywood. Across Indian film industries, while successful leading men and women are careful about their choices, it is not uncommon at all to find top character artistes and singers aboard cringe-worthy projects usually because their images tend not to take a beating from such detours, which also usually pay solid financial dividends. Yeah, I know – it is sad.

On second thoughts, if Sreekumar had not been part of School Diary, it may have slipped under the radar, it may not have managed to travel outside Kerala, and I may not have found myself gigging helplessly over it in a darkened hall in the National Capital Region in the middle of an exhausting day. Thank you, universe. Thank you.

Rating (out of five stars): 0 stars

CBFC Rating (India):
Running time:
108 minutes 

This review has also been published on Firstpost:


Posters courtesy:


REVIEW 603: B.TECH

Release date:
Kerala: May 5, Delhi: May 18, 2018
Director:
Mridul Nair
Cast:



Language:
Asif Ali, Arjun Ashokan, Aparna Balamurali, Niranjana Anoop, Anoop Menon, Sreenath Bhasi, Deepak Parambol, Saiju Kurup, Alencier Ley Lopez
Malayalam                                                 


If I have to watch one more Malayalam film set in an engineering college where students – mostly men – skip classes, get into fights with rivals, mistreat teachers, ogle women and while away their time drinking, even as the director chronicles their lives with indulgent affection, I might retire into a hut in the Himalayas.

Well past the halfway mark in B.Tech, just as I was about to google real estate prices in Uttarakhand and Himachal … boom! … something happened to draw attention back to the events unfolding on screen. Mridul Nair must explain why he chose to devote almost two-thirds of his film to goings-on as old as the hills in Malayalam cinema, when the sharp and politically relevant crux of B.Tech lies in the subsequent one-third.

Asif Ali in B.Tech plays Anand Subrahmanyam, an angst-ridden student of Bangalore’s Wisdom Institute of Technology (WIT), who is now in his eighth year in college. Engineering institutes are a dime a dozen in the city and, as he puts it, there are more engineers in this country than there are mosquitoes. He and his gang of layabouts make the situation worse for themselves by doing nothing about it.

Anand is the de facto head of the group that includes fellow students JoJo (Sreenath Bhasi) and Nissar Ahamed (Deepak Parambol), unemployed alumnus Prashanth Puthenveetil (Saiju Kurup) and the token woman, Ananya Vishwanathan (Niranjana Anoop). They hang out at Fathima Café whose owner Syed Ali Kuttiparambil (Alencier Ley Lopez) dotes on these freeloaders. Anand’s girlfriend Priya (Aparna Balamurali) is not a no-hoper like the rest. She is perennially angry with him and he is constantly inconsiderate towards her, but well, a hero’s gotta have a girlfriend, y’know.

Enter: Azad Mohammed (Arjun Ashokan), a virtuous child from Payannur. He gels with them despite being a first-year student and evidently earnest about his studies.

Azad’s arrival notwithstanding, this is a plot filled with generic characters in a generic setting who are even given a generic song, Ore nila ore veyil, through which they ride around the city on motorbikes looking generically cool. Just to prove how with-it they are, Nissar is called Puffs, Puffs leers at the neighbour’s wife’s and daughters’ panties hanging on a clothes line, and a bottle of hard liquor is called Sunny Leone. So hip, na?

The entire pre-interval portion is devoted to familiar antics that are very occasionally funny, but mostly not. The top-notch cinematography by Manoj Kumar Khatoi and overall polished packaging matter little in such a scenario.

The acting by the youngsters and Lopez is fair enough. Arjun Ashokan is especially sweet and gets us emotionally involved with his Azad. Anoop Menon, on the other hand, gives a stilted performance as Ananya’s lawyer Dad.

B.Tech inexplicably has Malayalam subtitles embedded in the print for English dialogues but not for Hindi dialogues. Is it this team’s contention that the film’s primary audience (read: Malayalis) understands Hindi and not basic English? Really?

Hold your cynical horses though. Early on we get a hint that writer Ramakrishna J. Kulur and writer-director Mridul Nair are not ordinary minds in a scene in the WIT principal’s office in which a teacher (Aju Varghese) gets Azad to take off his skullcap while having no problem whatsoever with a turbanned Sikh standing just inches away. If his was a sincere in-principle objection to external manifestations of religion, then, err, umm…

This is a truly great moment, not because it draws attention to Azad’s Muslim identity, but because the presence of the other gentleman in the room along with Azad raises a question that even liberals rarely have the guts to ask Islamophobes in India. Besides, it is so fleeting and executed without a fuss, that for a while I wondered whether Messrs Nair and Kulur had meant anything by it. They did. And they leave it there to simmer in the viewer’s mind until many scenes later when Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir is referenced, once again unfussily and in passing. Also gently woven into the otherwise run-of-mill, over-stretched narrative is a scene at a police station I will not describe here, and you begin to hope that at some stage this will go somewhere other than the boring route taken by innumerable Mollywood campus flicks.

It does. And when that happens, B.Tech fearlessly shames an Indian establishment steeped in prejudice against the Muslim community. Unfortunately the film takes too long to get to its politically explosive portion, and even when it does, the treatment of the sensitive matter is infused with commercial cinema conventions. For instance, in a scene that is designed as a nod to the scorching intensity of Kanhaiya Kumar’s azaadi slogans, actors pose around looking grim and a looooong song plays loudly in the background when the police charge at them.

Storywise, B.Tech has so much going for it by now, but subtracts from its own impact by stressing and restressing every point made either by showing characters play out episodes already recounted by others or with its high-decibel soundtrack that is used to underline emotions and actions already conveyed by the actors.

Having come out admirably with all guns blazing in its condemnation of Islamophobia within the police, B.Tech falters when a lawyer slams a policeman in court for stereotyping an entire community because of the crimes of a minority among them. No doubt this is a well-intended statement, but offered as it is without any addendum, it is also not far removed from the “all terrorists are Muslims but all Muslims are not terrorists” cliché in a world where a bearded, brown-skinned chap engineering a bomb blast will automatically be deemed an aatankwaadi / teevravadi, but the President of a global superpower does not earn the same label despite invading a foreign country under the pretext that it was hiding weapons of mass destruction, and within India, the tag is yet to be bestowed on those who plan ‘spontaneous’ beef-related lynchings and ‘riots’ in which minority community members are raped and murdered.

In its analysis of communal politics then, B.Tech is unexpectedly evolved, but not enough. Its failure to take its liberalism to a higher level might still have been excusable considering the real-life context in which it has been made, where open expressions of hatred are now so prevalent that any gesture of reconciliation comes as a relief. What is inexcusable though is the way the film lazily ambles through an unoriginal campus set-up for what seems like aeons before getting to the point.

A glass half empty could be viewed as half full by an optimist. B.Tech is a glass two-thirds empty. It takes more patience than I possess to view it as one-third full.  

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

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

This review has also been published on Firstpost: