Megabirthday 2015

inexplicable Chiru

Another year, another Megabirthday just around the corner! We’ll be celebrating things Chiru related during August and of course everyone is invited.

I’m still struggling to decide on a research topic for this year. So far I have the following under consideration:

  • Megastar, mini toga
  • Break dance, Shake dance, or Snake dance?
  • Chiru the Cowboy (aka Beth’s perennial request)

Thoughts? Suggestions?

Let me know if you post something Chiruesque and I’ll collate and publish the links. Or just watch for the #megabirthday2015 hashtag on Twitter and have a chat about all things Chiru. Like this. Ah, look at him go….and look at those ruffles.

 

 

 

Ustad Hotel

Ustad Hotel poster

After watching the excellent Bangalore Days I was on the lookout for more from writer/director Anjali Menon and director Anwar Rasheed, and luckily found their previous co-venture Ustad Hotel lurking in my pile of ‘to-be-watched’ DVD’s.  The other drawcard pushing this up the list was the appearance of Dulquer Salmaan, who has impressed so far in every performance I’ve seen and seems to have the knack of picking a good script. And once again, the combination does not disappoint. Ustad Hotel is a gem of a film and fully deserves the many accolades and awards received, including its three National Film Awards in 2012. The story is simple but beautifully executed with stunning cinematography and excellent performances from the whole cast. It’s a real feast for the senses given that most of the film revolves around food and cooking, so probably best not to watch on an empty stomach!

The film tells the story of Faizal (Dulquer Salmaan), commonly called Faizi, and the path he takes to find his true place in life. Along the way we see details of his different relationships – with his four sisters, his father and most importantly with his grandfather, the owner of the Ustad Hotel.

Faizi’s story starts before he is born when his father Abdul Razaq (Siddique) and mother Fareeda (Praveena) are expecting their first child. Abdul’s confidence that the baby will be a boy and his disappointment when this child, and the next three are all girls, sets our expectations for a typically traditional family and in the main this is what we get. By the time Faizi is finally born, his ambitious father has already planned out his son’s life, which leaves little room for what Faizi himself actually wants. Luckily Faizi has his four sisters who bring him up after their mother dies and seem to have his best interests at heart. His sisters know that he is training to be a chef in Switzerland while his father thinks he is studying for an MBA, but they aren’t impressed by his European girlfriend or by his plans to work in London. As a result they conspire to bring him back to India, but still keep his father in the dark about Faizi’s true plans.

At the same time Abdul has arranged a bride visit for Faizi as soon as he steps off the plane, but things don’t go well when Faizi tells his intended bride Shahana (Nithya Menon) of his intention to work as a chef. Faizi’s furious father confiscates his passport and in desperation Faizi turns to his grandfather Kareem (Thilakan) who runs a small beachside restaurant in Kozhikode.

Kareem acts as a mentor to Faizi and teaches him not only how to cook his famous biriyani, but also how to care for a business, including his workers, and the general community around him. The obvious respect which Kareem receives from everyone from his staff and customers, to the chef in the five-star hotel nearby, makes Faizi realise that there is more to his grandfather than he previously realised. Everyone sees him as Kareem’s grandson and that defines his place in a way that has never been so clear before.  The story is well crafted and the relationship between the two is beautifully developed as Kareem starts by making Faizi a general helper and gradually allows him to develop his cooking skills while ensuring he gains a more mature outlook on life.

Thilakan is perfect as Kareem and he is the glue that holds the story together. There is a twinkle in his eye as he describes running off with the bride from a wedding where he was employed to cook, and the wistful delight with which he describes watching rain in the desert is pitched just right. He has a number of maxims he lives by, including that every meal should feed the mind as well as the stomach and every glass of sulaimani should contain a little bit of love. With these simple words and by ensuring his workers all have extra funds should they need it, Kareem teaches Faizi how to be a good person, not just a good cook. He is a man who lives his life with no regrets and has compassion for all, which makes him the ideal mentor for Faizi.

Dulquer is also excellent, and while the role of a trendy young NRI returning to India may be straightforward, his Faizi does appear to be genuinely at a crossroads.  He imbues his character with plenty of charm but also gives Faizi an element of confusion and bewilderment that fits his indecision perfectly. Dulquer and Thilakan share wonderful chemistry and their relationship comes across as very genuine – the respected elder and the young apprentice both in the film and presumably also in real life given that this is only Dulquer’s second film. Mamukkoya also deserves special mention in his role as Ummar, Kareem’s manager and almost another member of the family. He is very natural in the role and his conversations with Kareem about Faizi are exactly what you would expect from an old and trusted employee asked to give his opinion on the wayward young member of the family.

Nithya Menon appears as the love interest for Faizi and her Shahana is an interesting character. At one moment she is wearing a burka and conforming to the demands of her rather strict family, but in the next she steals out and is singing in a rock band and wearing Western clothes. Nithya Menon is as wonderful as ever and even in her limited time onscreen she makes an impression, but I really would have liked to see a little more of her in the second half.

While Faizi deals with the repercussions of defying his father, he gets a job at the five-star hotel next door and has a chance to use his training to cook more Western style dishes, or ‘oag cosin’ as my subtitles call it! There is a plot to drive Kareem out of the hotel and close down the Ustad Hotel and finally Faizi makes a trip to Madurai to see just how cooking with love should be carried out. It all ties together perhaps a little too neatly at the end but it’s hard to complain when it’s all done so well with S Lokanathan’s stunning cinematography ensuring each scene looks perfect.

Ustad Hotel is a film that flows beautifully, blending adept characterisations, a heart-warming story and traditional Keralan cuisine into a very tasty dish indeed. There are a few quibbles; Faizi’s Western girlfriend is horribly stereotyped and the second half could have been a little shorter without losing too much of the story. The romance between Faizi and Shahana seems to go from awkwardness after her initial rejection to a friendly relationship well, but the jump to romance seems to happen off camera as the two are suddenly an item without any further development of their relationship. However these are small points in an otherwise excellent film. Well worth watching for Dulquer, Thilakan and Nithya along with all the glorious shots of food. 4 ½ stars.

ABCD 2

ABCD 2

For me to enjoy a dance movie it just needs to have a lot of dancing. Sure a story is good, some character development would be nice but as long as there is plenty of dancing then I’ll be happy. And that’s just as well, since ABCD 2 has no coherent storyline and little character development, but does have excellent dancers, inspiring choreography and plenty of hip hop. It does at times feel a little like watching an extended episode of SYTYCD, except that there is probably more drama and definitely fewer inane dialogues in the TV show. But in fairness ABCD 2 does deliver just as much dancing. Not a film for everyone, but if you don’t mind a wafer-thin plot and are happy to watch the entire cast start dancing at every possible opportunity then ABCD 2 is the film for you.

The film starts with dance group the Mumbai Stunners being disqualified from a dance competition for plagiarising their entire routine from a Filipino group. This is particularly heart-breaking for Suresh (Varun Dhawan) whose mother was a celebrated Kathak dancer who died with her ghungroos on (naturally!) and who would no doubt have been appalled at her son’s behavior if she’d been around to see it. The group is subsequently ostracised for cheating, which even includes being ridiculed and abused at their respective workplaces however unlikely that may seem. Despite these setbacks, Suresh is determined to dance and starts up a new group with an alcoholic choreographer he meets in the bar where he works. The plan is to take the new group to Las Vegas, compete in the hip-hop world championships and thereby regain their honour.

That would be fine except that the group really did plagiarise someone else’s choreography. And they never actually admit to it, or apologise for doing so. Not even when they meet the group they copied later on in the film do they ever acknowledge that they were at fault. It seems an odd omission for a film that is otherwise concerned with redemption – how can the group deserve a second chance when they never admit they made a mistake?

Suresh’s childhood friend Vinnie (Shraddha Kapoor) and fellow dancer Sushant Pujari help Suresh recruit new dancers who include Dharmesh Yelande and Punit Pathak (from ABCD), and they start their quest to compete in Las Vegas. Their chosen choreographer Vishnu (Prabhu Deva), who may or may not be the same Vishnu from the first film, sobers up exceptionally quickly and helps the group gain their second chance to show they really can dance.

Varun Dhawan is an excellent dancer and impressively keeps up with the professional dancers most of the time. Shraddha Kapoor is also much better than I expected, although she does get a break (not quite literally) when the group get to Las Vegas and she injures her ankle. That allows Olive (Lauren Gottlieb) to be a last-minute substitute, which means the group can really go for it and pull out some serious dance moves. There’s a sub-plot that involves Vishnu behaving somewhat shadily in the USA but of course it all gets resolved in time for the big dance finale.

The film does follow a similar ‘underdogs fighting for success’ path as ABCD and even includes a reworking of Bezubaan, presumably because it worked so well in the first film. However Bezubaan Phir Se is very similar to the original, reprising both the music and the dancing in water choreography but lacks the spark that made the original such a standout track despite some very impressive dancing.

Sadly ABCD 2 doesn’t develop any of the characters apart from a brief glimpse of Suresh’s mother and a short interlude with Vishnu, making it difficult to develop any empathy for the dancers or get behind their search for success. Even the few who are more than just faceless performers have little impact on the story and the film probably didn’t need an actor of Varun Dhawan’s calibre given how little he gets to ‘act’. Still, there is amazing dancing at every possible opportunity and that’s where ABCD 2 wins me over. There may not be much in the way of a storyline, but the dancers are superb, the choreography different from most Bollywood films and it’s packaged with plenty of glitz and dazzle. One more for dance fans, but that includes me and I’m already eagerly awaiting ABCD 3.

Shamitabh

Shamitabh

Shamitabh is the third film featuring Amitabh Bachchan from writer/director R. Balki and it’s definitely my pick of the three. I may however be somewhat biased, given that this film also stars my favourite Tamil actor Dhanush, who never fails to impress with his performance and delivers yet again in Shamitabh. I’ve found that while Balki’s previous two films Cheeni Kum and Paa have clever and overall engaging ideas, the execution doesn’t always live up to expectations. And to a lesser extent it’s the same with Shamitabh, although here there is more hit than miss and the film succeeds in humorously poking fun at a number of different aspects of the film industry. There are a few too many contrivances to make the plot really gel and the dodgy medical science is a drawback, but the central theme of two warring egos against the backdrop of the superficial and glamorous world of Bollywood is compelling enough to ensure an entertaining watch.

The film opens with a success event for début actor Shamitabh (Dhanush), and the impact on the room of invited guests is much the same as for the film audience when Dhanush opens his mouth and the voice of Amitabh Bachchan rolls out. The contrast could not be greater and it’s this combination of actor and voice that has made Shamitabh such a success in his first film. But before the phenomenon that is Shamitabh there was Daanish, a mute boy so obsessed with films that he dreamt of running away to Mumbai to be a hero. I don’t know who the young actor is who plays the young Daanish but he is absolutely brilliant, particularly when his exasperated teacher makes him act in front of the class. The anguish in his portrayal of despair at the supposed death of his mother is incredible and from that point it does seem possible that perhaps Daanish could be a hero despite his lack of a voice. However once he grows up and does make it to Mumbai, it’s evident that no matter how good an actor Daanish is, he will never be able to make it into the film industry without a voice.

Enter a young and ambitious AD Akshara (Akshara Haasan) who is impressed by the aspiring actor and decides to try and help him gain his dream. There is a wonderful irony in the rejection of an actor because he cannot speak in an industry that relies heavily on dubbing, which is of course the whole point. In one of those plot contrivances, Akshara’s father is a doctor whose laryngologist friend just happens to have heard about revolutionary new surgery in Finland. Somehow Akshara convinces her father to send Daanish for the surgery, which involves implanting a device in his throat which can store and then play back someone else’s speaking voice. As Bollywood medicine goes it isn’t the most ridiculous I’ve seen, but it’s certainly close and it’s probably best not to dwell on the lack of logic or the major holes with the technology and just go with it for the sake of the plot.

Naturally then, given the choice of absolutely anyone who could become his ‘voice’, Daanish decides to go with an older alcoholic who doesn’t look as if he will make it to the interval before succumbing to liver failure, let alone the entire career span of a young and upcoming actor. Amitabh Sinha (Amitabh Bachchan) came to Mumbai years before with a similar dream of being a hero, but was rejected because of his deep and powerful voice, ending up in the gutter where Daanish and Akshara find him. Despite his shabby and homeless appearance Amitabh lives in a graveyard, symbolism definitely intended, and doesn’t take too much persuading to sign up as the voice of Daanish. The idea is that he will in some way get his own back on the industry that denied him a chance at success, although he settles for a small proportion of Daanish’s earnings and the position of valet to hide his real occupation.

The composite of Daanish and Amitabh as ‘Shamitabh’ (a necessary change to deal with numerology issues) is instantly successful and Balki throws in plenty more digs at Bollywood clichés including product placement (the film is called Lifebuoy) and the inevitable romantic song. These, along with camero appearances by the likes of Rekha and Karan Johar keep the audience smiling despite the underlying tension and hostility between the ‘actor’ and his ‘voice’.

The relationship between Daanish and Amitabh is not a happy one, as Daanish struggles to deal with his unpredictable partner and Amitabh becomes ever more resentful of the fame and recognition heaped on Daanish. Daanish for his part is determined to prove that his charisma and acting skill is enough and the voice irrelevant, while Amitabh strives to prove that without his voice Daanish would be nothing. Akshara is forced to be the mediator in the middle, a role she neither wants nor fully accepts which leads to further tension and discord.

Amitabh has a tendency to ham it up as the gruff and grumpy alcoholic, particularly when he is the main focus of a scene, but he is excellent in his interactions with Dhanush and their mutual enmity boils off the screen when they face off against each other. Dhanush is as amazing as ever in a role where he never speaks but still conveys frustration at his predicament or excitement with his success with consummate ease.  The two actors work well together and their relationship is perfectly nuanced as they battle it out despite the occasionally forced and laboured storyline.

Akshara Haasan is also good and holds her own beside two such good performances from Dhanush and Amitabh. She has her own obsession and I like the way her character holds true to this dream, refusing to be merely the bridge to success for Shamitabh or even worse just a passing love interest. Her character is more interesting than that and Akshara is impressively successful in bringing her ambitious assistant director to life.

Although the relationship between the two men is well captured some of the story veers into ridiculous a little too often. I don’t understand the Bollywood obsession with toilet humour, and here Balki adds so much bathroom based comedy that I can’t be sure if he’s being satirical or whether he does actually think this is funny. Some of it works, but like Amitabh’s continual references to whiskey and water as similes for himself and Daanish, it does wear thin after a while.

Although the first half is excellent, the film falters towards the end, with the climax in particular being drawn out and almost clumsy in execution. By the end, neither Amitabh nor Daanish are particularly likeable as the success of their composite Shamitabh brings out their worst qualities, so it’s difficult to feel any sympathy for their plight, although the relationship itself is fascinating as it self destructs. However the rest of the film more than makes up for the clunky end, and the excellent performances from the three main leads ensure that the good idea of the story isn’t lost somewhere behind the dodgy medicine. Worth watching for a satirical look at the Bollywood film industry and an unusual relationship that is cleverly drawn and intelligently developed despite the manipulations required to start it in the first place. 3 ½ stars.

Frozen (2007)

Frozen-title

Shivajee Chandrabushan’s Frozen is a lyrical and often dreamlike film. Shot on location in Ladakh and released in black and white, it’s a story told as much through the stunning visuals as through the slightly clunky screenplay. I’ll state upfront I don’t have much of a view on the political background, and I am sure a homegrown audience would have a deeper understanding that would colour their viewing. I found the film satisfying on face value as a story about family, the effects of change, and the challenge to maintain integrity.

Karma (Danny Denzongpa) is an apricot jam maker, a widower living with his family in their ancestral home near Leh. He knows he has to try and keep up with the times, but that is easier said than done. He bought a machine to speed up his jam production but it doesn’t run reliably. He has mounting debts as his business deteriorates, loans cannot be repaid on time, and the interest is crippling. His daughter Lasya (Gauri) is wilful and an attention seeker, while Chomo (Aungchuk) is her little shadow. The siblings spend their days playing with their dog Singhe, running around in the woods, or going to visit their mother’s memorial, high on a neighbouring hillside. Lasya is growing up and Karma knows he should settle her marriage before all his debts are called in, but he resists taking any action, hoping he can keep providing for her. One day the army arrives on his doorstep to set up a camp. Their peaceful valley is suddenly full of trucks and electric lights, threats of violence by ‘the enemy’, and his land is no longer worth anything.

The pace, and price, of change is evident. The crowd at a festival is dotted with camera wielding tourists in Gore-Tex, hideous denim replaces the traditional woollen clothing, and motorbikes replace ponies. The army officers talk about the enemy and how the valley is no longer safe, but Karma only sees the place he grew up. His land is now covered in barbed wire, the silence broken by constant truck traffic. The officers also complain about how all the food in the market is being bought by ‘them’ to cause shortages, a sad situation for the jam maker who cannot sell his wares.

Danny Denzongpa is just wonderful. He doesn’t have much dialogue and manages to convey so much through Karma’s expressions, his pauses before responding, and his stillness. Karma’s Buddhist philosophy is the foundation of his character. He uses every challenge as a means of practising what he believes in, and his integrity is as substantial and present as the mountains.  When Karma realises loan shark Dawa is proposing to trade Lasya in return for more money, there is a long beat before he meekly nods. Danny shows his revulsion, anger and resignation all in a flicker of expression, with no sign of any 70s masala filminess or his more recent villainous styling.  I’m always happy to see Danny rock up in any film, and I particularly enjoyed this very gently shaded characterisation.

Gauri is pretty and lively, and gives Lasya a case of chronic resting bitch face which suits the character perfectly. She is starting to want more than her life in the remote homestead but it is clear she loves her father and her little brother. The local Romeo, who is actually called Romeo, (Shakeel Khan) takes a fancy to her. While she likes his attention she seems to like the opportunities to explore the world that come along with a boyfriend with a motorbike more than she likes the boy. Lasya is a typical teenager in a not so typical setting. Her energy sometimes manifests as anger, even when she doesn’t really know why. Karma does his best to teach her to guard her mind, to understand how to address her fears.

Little Chomo is the typical baby brother. He follows his big sister and lets her both bully and make a pet of him. Aungchuk doesn’t have to say a lot but he has an expressive face and droll comic timing. He is a loner, only ever hanging out with his sister or silently tagging along after his dad. I wondered about why he seemed to be on the periphery all the time and how he felt about his isolation, and liked the way his story unfolded.

Sita (Anuradha Baral) helps Karma run his house and feed his kids. She is obviously very fond of them and does her best to keep things running. Salim (Sanjay Swaraj) is in the same boat as Karma, with maxed out loans and little prospect of getting back on his feet. Colonel Shyam (Aamir Bashir) and the Rinpoche (Sonam Stobgias Gorky) are different kinds of influences in Karma’s life. The bad side of modernisation is represented by the parasitical loan sharks; sleazy Dawa (Rajendranath Zutshi) and sweary Sharma (Yashpal Sharma).

Karma and Lasya interact with lots of people but I wouldn’t say they were very close with anyone other than Sita. On a rare day out, Lasya explores a fair and it is great fun to see what she sees, and check out the crowds and entertainment, even a glimpse of the cham dancers from Thiksey Gompa. One day I’ll get there myself!

The film sometimes feels a little disjointed as it is more a series of vignettes and images, ranging from realism to more fanciful compositions. That adds to the dreamy nature as scenes shift and the focus moves from character to character. I read somewhere that Shivajee Chandrabhushan is a climber, and he certainly captured the things I love about the mountains. The landscape is both exhilarating and confining, and the vast skies and stark light often have an otherworldly effect. The environmental upheaval mirrors the turmoil in Karma’s life, and the changing seasons are a reminder of how little time he may have to protect his family. The epilogue was a bit tricksy after such a sincere story, and I would have been just as happy for the film to end without the final scene. Having said that, I liked that I was left with questions and possibilities and not just a plot tied up with a bow.

This is a film for a contemplative evening, when you can just immerse yourself in the flow of images and see where it takes you. And a rewarding film for the Danny Denzongpa fans. 4 stars!