Chotushkone (2014)

chotushkone poster

I love this film! It’s such a perfect integration of story, characters, location and music that unfolds seamlessly, often unexpectedly, to deliver an excellent dramatic thriller. Srijit Mukherji’s screenplay weaves in and out of present and past with a story of four separate directors en route to meet a director with ideas for a new film. It’s clever and engaging, even more so on second or third watch when it’s easier to appreciate the detailed clues that were missed first time around. Chotushkone won several National Awards and is one of those ‘must-see’ films that really is much better onscreen than it sounds on paper.

My favourite thing about Chotushkone is cinematographer Sudeep Chatterjee’s use of light and colour to enhance every scene. The film starts in sepia, but there are portions in black and white, and when the directors each narrate their idea for a screenplay, the action takes place coloured red, blue and green. Each scene has so much detail that I keep pausing my DVD to fully appreciate the set dressing and how appropriate each element is for that stage of the drama. Literally every time I watch this film I spot something new!

It’s also gorgeously filmed throughout. Every shot has wonderful balance of light and shade and Sudeep uses interesting combinations of objects and shadows to frame his subjects. In fact, the first time I watched the film I almost lost track of the plot as I was so invested in the look of the film, but fortunately the actors are all fantastic and the story becomes completely gripping after the slow build-up that introduces the characters. It’s a wonderful visual feast, but the film also excels in the soundtrack with Anupam Roy providing beautiful music that fits the screenplay and enhances the action without ever becoming intrusive or distracting. This is my favourite, but all of the songs are lovely and I’ve been addicted to the soundtrack since watching the film.

The film opens with a suicide set in an opulently decorated house that appears to have fallen on hard times. The furnishings are exquisite but the wall paper is peeling and there is a general air of decay. The staging of these opening scenes is beautifully done, starting with the elegant writing of a letter using a fountain pen and ending with the discovery of the body, with sepia tint delivering a timelessness to the images. It’s not clear whether the opening events take place prior to the next scene, or after, or even if they are related at all, given that the story moves on to different characters in a bar and is shot in black and white. However gradually all the pieces come together and the different components of the story build into a comprehensive whole.

Joyobroto (Parambrata Chatterjee) is a young film maker who has negotiated with Mr Gupta (Koushik Ganguly) to produce a new film composed of four separate short stories by different directors. The only condition is that each film has to address the theme of death. Joy approaches three older and well-known directors to take part in the exercise, although in some cases it takes his considerable powers of persuasion to get agreement. Trina Sen (Aparna Sen) was once a famous actor but has moved on to directing films, Sakyo (Goutam Ghose) is an award-winning director of art-house films while Dipto (Chiranjeet Chakraborty) has made a couple of commercial potboilers after he too had a career as a cinematographer and then actor. As they start their road-trip together the previous relationships between Trina, Dipto and Sakyo become clear and the possibility for disaster looms large given the old arguments that still scent the air.

As the four travel they each relate their individual stories for the film. Each story is good as a tale that involves death, but there is plenty of symbolism in each as well (Dipto’s protagonist who is literally ‘dying’ for a cigarette, when all the while there is the censor’s ‘smoking kills’ message at the bottom of the screen) and Srijit appears to be telling a series of stories within the concept of making a movie which itself is composed of a series of stories. It’s a veritable labyrinth as the black and white portions of the film are also telling another story – that of Nilanjana (Payel Sarkar), Ritwik (Indrasish Roy) and Amitava (Rahul Banerjee) who are also all making a film together. The beauty of Chotushkone is that this all makes sense within the concept of the overall plot, while gradually the big picture emerges from the different strands. There are a couple of side stories that add more background to the characters – that of Trina and her husband (Barun Chandra), Sakyo and his daughter who is pushing him to make his latest deadline and Dipto’s son (Anindya Chatterjee) who is at loggerheads with his father about Dipto’s romance with Mimi (Koneenica Banerjee), a woman half his age.

The cast are all excellent and fit into their roles well. Aparna Sen has a world-weary attitude that suits her character while Chiranjeet Chakraborty and Goutam Ghose play well off each other as the two friends with quite different attitudes to film-making. Each has their own foibles that make them realistic characters and their easy relationship speaks of their long-time friendship. Parambrata Chatterjee is superb as the glue that holds everyone together despite the bickering and complaining, and perfectly suits the persona of a younger film director trying to keep his idea alive while dealing with three quite prickly personalities. Koushik Ganguly also stands out in his small but effective role as the film’s potential producer, particularly at the end of the film when all is revealed.

This really is a beautifully made film that tells a good story using a novel approach. There is plenty of sub-text to chew over on repeated viewings while good performances from the cast ensure the film is engaging at all levels from start to finish. It does start rather slowly, but the intricate framing of each scene helps keep the film interesting and once the main characters are introduced the film is completely mesmerising. I thoroughly enjoyed Chotushkone and the more I’ve read about the actors and the industry the more I appreciate just how much Srijit Mukherji has managed to fit in to his screenplay. Highly recommended for a detailed and engrossing thriller that ticks all the boxes. 5 stars.

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Piku (2015)

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Shoojit Sircar’s Piku could be summarised as two hours of Bhaskor (Amitabh Bachchan) and his shit, literal and figurative. He is a man obsessed with his ever-present constipation, and that and his intelllectual superiority are his favourite topics of conversation. Luckily there is more than just a constipated old man to this story and for me, Piku (Deepika Padukone) is the real heart of the film.

Bhaskor is well intentioned but domineering and contradictory. I found him slightly monstrous as his self-absorption is limitless, and for all his manners he is often unkind. He won’t let his daughter marry saying that is a ‘Low IQ’ thing to do and he wants more for her than to be a man’s wife, but he also insists she do as he says. On the one hand he talks about how much he loved his wife, then criticises her for being so unhappy (because he made her unhappy by marrying her). He introduces her to prospective suitors by telling them she isn’t a virgin, and asking if they have a problem with that. They mightn’t care, but for me his lack of empathy for Piku is very off putting. The family is loud and shouty, all of them totally obsessed with their bowels or Bhaskor’s motions, but there is no lack of love. Arguments get heated then suddenly devolve into giggles or reminiscences, a nicely realistic note.

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Amitabh effortlessly dominates the scenes he is in, even when he is sleeping. He does a little OVER!ACT!ING!, particularly towards the beginning of the film when Bhaskor is being set up as irascible and a bit quixotic. But when he hits his stride, he is delightful and charismatic. My favourite scene was when Bhaskor comes home from a party a little drunk. He puts on old records and starts dancing. At first he is playing to his judgemental daughter, twisting and mugging to get a laugh and stop her from telling him off. But then his moves change and he seems to have journeyed back to an earlier happier time, not even looking at Piku, as he gently dances to a much loved song. Her expressions are perfect as she moves from anger to concern to grudging amusement before sashaying back to her room, half dancing along. For me, that perfectly expressed the love and tension when the child becomes the caretaker and has to deal with their parents’ mortality.

At first I thought this was going down the path of a modern woman has to be an aggressive, unpleasant, and possibly slutty woman. But Piku is overruled by her father and his innards, her clients often ignore her design advice, and she has no one who will really listen so I can’t blame her for getting irritable. Piku is aware of how much her father’s needs and demands are shaping her days, but she is doing what she thinks is right so doesn’t feel bitter. Her love life is limited to the occasional hookup with her business partner Syed (Jisshu Sengupta) and she doesn’t invest time in notions of romance. At first glance Piku is abrasive, but Deepika is lovely, warm, and…real as she adds and removes layers to her character. The rapport between Piku and Rana develops slowly, borne by the conversations and observations of people stuck in a car with a cranky old man. He sees past her tough front, and she sees his apparent laziness is more of a weary pragmatism which she can relate to.

Irrfan (apparently he needs no surname these days) can be hit (Life in a Metro) or miss (do we all remember Krazzy 4?). This performance is a hit for me, and Rana suits his slightly offbeat delivery and everyman style. He and the Big B do indulge in one scene that is more like an improv no one knows how to end, but generally he concentrates on being Rana rather than on skills demonstrations. I felt Rana was a kind of proxy for the viewer as at first he is overwhelmed by Piku’s bolshy character, all the cacophony, and the incessant examination of digestive functions, but gradually he sees behind the bluster. He tries to offer advice and be helpful at home and at work, but his platitudes are rejected. It’s only when he gets real that he is heard. The nascent relationship between Piku and Rana is based on mutual understanding and respect and there is no insta-love personality transplant or makeover required.

Moushimi Chatterjee is a whirlwind as Piku’s Aunty, and brings some fun and a much needed opposing voice to Bhaskor’s benevolent dictatorship. Budhan (Balendra Singh) is a hapless servant, attending to all Bhaskor’s bathroom related chores. While I did laugh at some of his scenes, I could have lived without all the poo jokes.

Whistling in a soundtrack is generally an indicator of whimsy, which is not my most loved style. But apart from a propensity for emo guitar tweedling, Anupam Roy’s soundtrack suits the drama and the pared back style very well, and I enjoyed it and the songs used in the background.

Piku has a flavour of the middle cinema of the 70s; not realism but realistic. The characters felt like they had roots. While the cinematography was beautiful, it wasn’t distracting, more often giving the viewer a fly on the wall glimpse of what was going on. There were a few indulgently arty shots in Kolkata, but who could complain about that? Some of the dialogue feels improvised and Juhi Chaturvedi’s screenplay gives a distinct voice for each character, whether through their blend of languages or the formality of their speech.

Not much really happens in Piku, but all the characters go on a bit of a journey beyond the physical road trip. I laughed, the lady sitting next to me cried and we all did a bit of ‘you go girl’ affirmative nodding. See this for Deepika Padukone giving a fine performance as a modern, complex woman and for some late career Big B magic.

(Note: Maybe don’t see this if even mild toilet humour grosses you out.)