Autograph (2010)

AutographAfter watching Srijit Mukherji’s excellent Chotuskone, I was inspired to track down some of his other films and where better to start than with his 2010 début, Autograph. This is another film within a film but this time new director Shubhobrata Mitra (Indraneil Sengupta) is out to remake Satyajit Ray’s famous Nayak and wants Bengali superstar Arun Chatterjee (Prosenjit Chatterjee) to play the lead role. The film story and the real-life story cleverly intertwine and both mirror the plot of Nayak although it’s the inter-personal relationships that are the main driver of the film.  While Autograph is not as polished as Chotuskone, it’s an interesting choice of subject and a fantastic début film for Srijit Mukerji.

Satyajit Ray’s Nayak is a classic of Bengali cinema where a famous film actor pours out his life story, including his insecurities and mistakes, to a young journalist on a train. While Srijit Mukerji describes Autograph as a tribute to the famous director, within the film aspiring writer/director Shubhobrata Mitra (aka Shubho) explains more simply that he is remaking Nayak (with further inspiration from Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries!) and updating it for a modern audience. As Autograph begins, after two years of unsuccessful approaches to Arun’s agent Ashu (Pijush Ganguly) Shubho has finally managed to secure a meeting with the famous actor. We know straight away that Shubho is a good guy because he gives money to a street beggar when his car stops on the way to the interview, ensuring that the audience are behind the attempts of this ‘underdog’ to secure Arun as the lead in his film.

What Shubho doesn’t know is that Arun has seen a TV interview with successful producer Manoj Sarkar (Biswajit Chakraborty) declaring that a star was not necessary for a successful film. Arun is determined to show that even with a first-time director his stardom will ensure a hit film, even if he has to take over and direct the film himself. However, Shubho has a vision and he isn’t willing to compromise on his screenplay, which makes Arun look more favourably on Shubho’s proposal. Arun also agrees to produce the film and with Shubho properly humble and eager to work with an experienced team, it looks as if his big break has finally arrived.

Shubho needs a strong actor to take on the role of the young female journalist played by Sharmila Tagore in the original film and decides on his partner Srinandita (Nandana Sen), a theatre actor for the part.  Srin though isn’t keen, citing her inexperience and her relationship with Shubho as reasons not to take on the role. In reality she doesn’t want to work with one of her idols and is intimidated by the thought of working alongside such a big star.  Despite his apparent vanity and pride (check out the massive portraits everywhere in his house), Arun is a total professional who quickly puts Srin at ease and helps her with her performance. Real and reel life start to overlap as Arun takes Srin out to dinner and starts to confess his own insecurities and regrets, just as his character does in Shubho’s film.

But as the friendship is developing between Arun and Srin, Shubho becomes more and more arrogant and egotistical as the shoot progresses. He criticises the crew, is appallingly rude to everyone and berates Srin for her poor performance as Arun helps her practice her lines. He manages to stop short of criticising his leading man but only because he knows which side of his bread is buttered. For Shubho, this film is his chance to finally make it in the industry and he’s prepared to sacrifice his friends, Srin and everyone else to make his dream come true.

While the rapport between Arun and Srin works well and is believably shown as a friendship that gradually becomes deeper, Shubho’s transformation happens rather too quickly to be realistic. His treatment of Srin seems somewhat plausible but the change from mild mannered director to arrogant brat seems rather more unlikely, given his initial modesty and precarious status as a newcomer reliant on Arun for everything. His transformation though is complete when he refuses to give the same beggar any money and he finally betrays both Arun and Srin in his attempts to make his film a success.

Prosenjit Chatterjee is excellent here and his portrayal of the charming superstar of Bengali cinema is enthralling and completely believable. His initial arrogance and rather cynical view of the film industry is well balanced by Nandana Sen’s enthusiastic Srinandita while the gradual mellowing of his character is beautifully done. The developing friendship allows Prosenjit’s character to slowly reveal his own insecurities and poor decisions throughout his career – one of which is shown in flashback to his days on the stage with his mentor, played by the late Dilip Roy. The friendship seems a natural progression too and Arun never comes across as sleazy or opportunistic, which given that he is dealing with a new actor who initially sees him through a veil of hero-worship is fairly significant in a film that touches on sexual harassment within the industry. Nandana Sen is also excellent and brings a naiveté and innocence to her role which ensures Arun’s fascination with Srin appears genuine. She is convincing as a theatre actor reluctantly thrown into the spotlight and her refusal to compromise on her values seems appropriate for a new and inexperienced actor.

Srijit Mukherji is less successful in his description of the relationship between Shubho and Srin, particularly in the romantic scenes, which seem rather overdone. This may be because they occur during a song, which also feels out of place and disruptive to the story, but the idyllic nature of their relationship here doesn’t gel with the more mundane reality of their day-to-day lives. However, the later arguments are much better and Indraneil Sengupta does an excellent job in depicting the single-minded obsession driving Shubho. To be fair I suspect that such dogged determination is essential when making a film, especially for a new director, and this aspect of Shubho’s character comes across perfectly in a number of well written scenes. Overall Indraneil is convincing in his role as a egocentric filmmaker and while the transformation may be rather too quick, he does a good job with both aspects of Shubho’s personality.

Debajyoti Mishra provides the music, and Anupam Roy the lyrics for the songs, most of which are catchy even if they don’t all sit well within the narrative. Soumik Hadlar ensures the film looks good although there are one or two moments where excessive camera movement is distracting from the main action. The finale is excellent, poignant and memorable, and a fitting end to a film that has so effectively intertwined the characters’ lives. This may not be a perfect film but there are moments where it comes close, and for the most part it’s simply very good. For a début film it’s outstanding and a clear indication that Srijit Mukherji was on the road to becoming a film-maker of significance. Highly recommended. 4 stars.

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c/o Kancharapalem

Kancharapalem

c/o Kancharapalem is a wonderful début film from Venkatesh Maha that looks at romance through four very different relationships. The first is a schoolyard crush that has unexpected consequences, the second is a twenty-something affair while the third is between a mystery woman and a bottle shop employee. But it’s the fourth story that has the most impact – a gorgeously developed romance between the 49-year old Raju (Subbu Rao) and 42-year old Radha (Radha Bessey). Along the way Maha touches on prejudices associated with caste and religion, adds in excellent characters like a stammering idol maker and a gym-running rowdy with political aspirations. This is life in a microcosm and Maha has produced a film that is down-to-earth and warm-hearted while still making some very valid points about society in India to-day.

The four different stories run alongside each other and intertwine, with the common theme being the area of Kancharapalem in Vizag. The area is separated from the next suburb by a train line, and the passing trains help to isolate Kancharapalem and provide a visible boundary for the residents. We become familiar with the streets too as each of the characters walks around the area and this creates an intimacy with the town –the small shop by the school is recognisable, for example, because a number of the characters at some stage walk past. Having created this small-town atmosphere, Maha continues by using locals as the support cast, ensuring that it seems more as if we are watching a documentary about the area rather than a fictional story that just happened to be set in

.The romances cover every generation and the youngest couple are still at school. Sundaram (Kesava K) deliberately puts himself in situations where Sunitha (Nithya Sree) will see him, but despite sitting next to him in class she barely seems to notice him at all. This all changes when he wears a pink shirt, deliberately as Sunitha has described pink as her favourite colour. While the rest of his class tease him for wearing a girl’s colour, Sunita finally makes a connection and the two become firm friends. Rounding out this part of the story is Sundaram’s father (Kishore) who makes idols for a living but is frustrated by his current employer so with the support of his wife, he decides to set up his own business. Sundaram’s father has a speech impediment and one of the real charms of the film is how it demonstrates the day to day frustrations he experiences. People finish his sentences and cut his stammering words off because they don’t have time to listen. It’s very effective, particularly since his wife is the only person who seems to really listen, but even she speaks for him during negotiations to make a new idol for the area.

The second couple are a little older – Bhargavi (Praneetha Patnaik) is at college and she first sees Joseph (Karthik Rathnam) acting as an enforcer for a gym owner (and ex-rowdy) with links to political organisations (Uma Maheswara Rao). After initial conflicts between the two, they settle into a relationship despite Bhargavi being a Brahmin and Joseph a Christian. While in the first story Lord Ganesha was an integral part of the story, here it’s religious intolerance from Bhargavi’s father that weaves through the narrative and threatens to destroy their relationship. The peripheral characters are excellent here, from Bhargavi’s college friend experiencing harassment from the principal’s son, to Joseph’s friends who urge him to accept meeting the girls no matter what, each is richly sketched in just a few brief dialogues that add further realism to the story.

The third romance is simply brilliantly written and producer Praveena Paruchuri is superb in the role of Saleema. Gaddam (Mohan Bhagat) sees a mystery woman every day as she stops to buy a bottle of Mansion House, and he falls in love with her eyes without ever seeing her face or knowing anything about her. When he does finally pluck up the courage to speak to her, he is shocked by what he finds. Saleema is a prostitute and he has even spoken to her one night when she was employed by his friends. Rather than being judgemental or allowing Gaddam to ‘rescue’ Saleema, instead Maha develops the story in a way that allows Gaddam to accept Saleema’s past while planning for their future together. This is such a mature and insightful piece of cinema and both actors bring the story to life perfectly. Saleema is positive and practical while Gaddam is amazingly supportive, even bringing Saleema condoms to ensure she won’t suffer the same fate as her mother, who died of AIDS. Here the religious attitude is one of indifference from Gaddam while Saleema’s Muslim faith becomes an issue for her neighbours, although never for Gaddam.

The final romance is also the best as Maha brings in caste and age biases while developing a relationship that is comfortable rather than passionate, but no less compelling than the others. Raju works in a government office where Radha is a new officer, newly moved from Orissa. Radha has no time for the class system that forces Raju to eat apart from the officers, and he gradually responds to her warm friendliness. Raju has never been married (it just didn’t happen according to Raju) and has a number of quirks that speak to his long-held bachelor status. He ‘jogs’ every morning, and performs yoga exercises at a shrine, while at night he drinks with his friends. The rest of Kandharapalem just wants to see him married, and suspect that he is gay, but Raju is happy as he is, and more than happy to simply be friends with Radha. She has other ideas and the romance between the two develops slowly but realistically, with the emphasis being on companionship and friendship. The couple face opposition from Radha’s brother who declares she is too old for such nonsense – she’s 42! It seems an odd prejudice to have, but just one of the obstacles both Raju and Radha have to overcome if they wish to finally marry.

The film does become rather overdramatic towards the end, but the final scene brings everything together and all the melodrama suddenly makes sense. But although the conclusion is particularly pleasing and exceptionally well done, what is even better is the intertwining of the different characters and the realistic nature of each romance. The switch between the different romances may sound potentially confusing as the screenplay moves back and forth between each, but with Kancharapalem as a constant background this is never the case. Maha brings the audience totally into the time and place of the film and we can feel every nuance of the relationships as they unfold onscreen.

The music too is wonderful. Sweekar Agasthi’s soundtrack doesn’t feature pounding disco or more commercial songs, but instead takes local sounding tunes and Raghukul Mokirala adds beautiful lyrics that perfectly complement the action. It all fits together perfectly and provides the ideal background for the action. The actors are all impressive in their roles and the untrained support cast are fantastic too. This really is a wonderful film where everything comes together flawlessly and it’s no wonder it was part of the line-up for this year’s New York Indian Film Festival. This is one not to miss – seriously good cinema!

Roja (1992)

Roja

Mani Ratnam’s 1992 film Roja is the first of his so-called ‘terrorist-trilogy’; three films with a romance set against a political background of terrorist activity. Here he takes us to Kashmir, where the Tamil-speaking Roja struggles to plead her cause when her husband is kidnapped by Kashmiri separatists. This is a film primarily about the relationship between Roja and her husband but Mani Ratnam adds in a generous and slightly overdone slice of patriotism as well as providing some insight into the situation in Kashmir at the time. Most interestingly while depriving the Tamil-speaking Roja of a voice in Hindi-speaking Kashmir, the film gives the terrorists an opportunity to explain their thinking and the rationale behind their campaign. In addition to the stunning scenery and compelling story, Roja was the first film featuring a soundtrack by A.R. Rahman and it’s still ranks up there as one of his best. No wonder then that Roja won awards both nationally and internationally, and is still considered a classic today.

The opening credits roll over the sound of gunfire, helicopters and conflict, and the film starts with a bang as terrorist Wasim Khan (Shiva Rindani) is captured by the army in Kashmir. But the action quickly moves to a village near Tirunelveli, introducing Roja (Madhubala) in the beautiful song Chinna Chinna Aasai. It’s an effective contrast between the two worlds, and emphasises how easy it is to forget the violence in the north as we get pulled into the lives of the peaceful villagers in Tamil Nadu.

Cryptologist Rishi Kumar (Arvind Swamy) has come to the village with his mother (Sathyapriya) to meet his fiancée Shenbagam (Vaishnavi). He is first spotted by Roja and her younger sister who are favourably impressed with the sophisticated urbanite Rishi, but Shenbagam isn’t as smitten. She’s already in love with a local boy and persuades Rishi to reject the match – after which he tells Shenbagam’s family that he will marry Roja instead. Since Roja doesn’t know anything about her sister’s true feelings, she is horrified and angered by what she sees as a rejection of Shenbagam. It does seem surprising that Roja isn’t aware of her sister’s secret romance since otherwise they seem to have a good relationship, but perhaps Shenbagam is just very good at keeping secrets. She’s definitely champion of getting her own way, as in the end Roja has no say in the matter and she ends up getting married to Rishi.

Mani Ratnam captures the flavour of rural Tamil Nadu by involving the entire village in the vetting of the bridegroom and subsequent betrothal ceremony. No question is too personal and no subject off limits for the gaggle of aunties and uncles interrogating Rishi when he arrives, and to be fair he deals with their questioning well. Later, the gregarious group of aunties act almost like a Greek chorus as they chaperone Shenbagam and Rishi during their ‘private’ conversation and I love that Mani Ratnam involves them in the entire process, even in this song to celebrate the wedding and first night.

After moving to the city, Roja discovers the truth behind Rishi’s change of mind and her initial anger develops into an appreciation of his good qualities. This understanding deepens into romance, so when Rishi is sent to Kashmir for work, Roja insists on accompanying him rather than wait at home. She doesn’t seem to know much about the political situation in Kashmir, which is shown by her naïve questions to Rishi on their arrival. I find this lack of awareness interesting, and I wonder if this regional isolation can still exist to-day in the age of 24/7 news, Smartphones and the internet? I can’t decide if Mani Ratnam is trying to educate the rest of India about the Kashmir situation with these dialogues, or simply to show how much faith and trust Roja has in her husband, to blindly follow him without any idea of where she is going to end up. Probably both!

Once in Kashmir, the relationship between Roja and Rishi continues to bloom. There is excellent chemistry between Arvind Swamy and Madhubala and the developing romance is hot enough to melt the snow. Mani Ratnam cleverly uses teasing interactions between the two to deepen their relationship and show their obvious enjoyment in each other. But just as everything seems to be falling into place, Rishi is abducted by a group of masked men in a minivan. Roja immediately chases after the van, and it’s only when the van is long out of sight that she falls to her knees – even then, it’s more from disbelief at the situation rather than a gesture of despair. Roja is a woman of action and she’s not going to let the terrorists get away with their abduction.

While Rishi is held by the terrorists, Roja is determined to fight for his freedom, but she immediately runs into difficulties as she doesn’t speak or understand the language. As with Divya’s character in Mouna Ragam, she is also isolated by being so far away from home and familiar surroundings, however Roja has something to fight for and a reason to make herself heard. Eventually she is directed to Colonel Rayappa (Nasser) who is in charge of the search and who handily also speaks rudimentary Tamil. While Roja wants her husband home at any cost, Colonel Rayappa is more aware of the political realities of the situation and exactly what the terrorists demands to free Wasim Khan mean. The political discussions here are excellent, with Roja passionately arguing that the army has a duty to her husband as Rayappa tries to make her understand that the government will not willingly release a known murderer.

Meanwhile, Rishi tries to engage the terrorists by drawing their leader Liaqat (Pankaj Kapur) into conversation. Again, the politics of Kashmir are brought into the dialogues as Liaqat explains the separatists fight for freedom and independence, all of which makes little sense to the staunchly patriotic Rishi. Some of Rishi’s decisions seem quite extreme, such as when he demonstrates his patriotism in a situation where he knows it will only lead to a severe beating, or perhaps even death. Although, since he passionately opposes the release of Wasim Khan, perhaps that is actually part of his intention, but it’s not at all clear. Rather, for much of his imprisonment, the politics take second place as Rishi stares out of his barred window thinking about his wife.

Madhubala is outstanding here and her drive to find her husband along with the passion in their relationship come through very clearly. Her transition from rebellious village girl to determined wife is beautifully done, and she manages to show her character’s resilience tempered with despair exceptionally well. Arvind Swamy is just as good, aside from the brief forays into patriotism where the dialogue and actions do seem rather forced. Best of all are his interactions with Liaqat where the dialogues allow an exploration of the politics surrounding separatist violence in Kashmir. This theme is one that Mani Ratnam expands on much more in his later film Dil Se, but the seeds are sown here with at least glimpses of the separatists’ point of view. Liaqat too is a more sympathetic character than might be expected, although he’s marked as a ’bad guy’ by a rather large mole on his nose, which does at least make him easily identifiable when the terrorists are masked.

Roja has a perfect mix of engaging story, stunning scenery and beautiful music that all combine to produce a classic film. The actors are all excellent throughout and bring their characters realistically to life. Madhubala in particular shines as the central character and provides a strong focus to the story, while the mix of romance, action, suspense and politics is well judged to keep that focus clear.

Mani Ratnam always excels when he films relationships, but here he adds a wider viewpoint as the social problems within Kashmir intrude upon Rishi and Roja’s personal life. The juxtaposition of Roja fighting to reunite with her husband with Rishi’s attempts to persuade the terrorists to embrace a united India acts to bring the personal and the social aspects together and there is effective contrast between Roja’s love for Rishi, and Rishi’s patriotic belief in his country. That doesn’t mean that Rishi doesn’t love Roja, but his fight is to turn the terrorists from their course, while Roja is single-minded in her quest to find her husband. A.R. Rahman’s music is the icing on an already rich cake while Santosh Sivan impresses with his excellent camerawork. I love this film and each time I watch I am amazed all over again by the richness and depth of both the story and the dialogues. Simply brilliant! 5 stars.