I Am

While Bollywood has just started to show kissing scenes and Hollywood is slowly integrating gay storylines into films, director Onir has moved much further ahead with his latest film. I Am is a confronting and thought-provoking collection of 4 stories which deal with subjects commonly not spoken about in public and rarely seen in mainstream film. In addition to its subject matter, the film is novel in that funding was partly achieved through social networking and has over 400 producers. Onir and Sanjay Suri initiated a page on Facebook where people were invited to sign up to help finance the film or volunteer their time. Manish Malhotra for example designed the costumes for free and many of the actors did not receive any remuneration. Also, somewhat unusually, there are three directors who appear as actors in the film; Anurag Kashyap, Anurag Basu and Nandita Das. I Am has won acclaim in a number of film festivals, a number of awards already, and luckily for us premiered in Australia as the closing film for the Indian Film Festival. As an added bonus, Onir and Juhi Chawla were present at the screening I attended in Melbourne to introduce the film and to take part in a Q and A session afterwards. My favourite actress, a director whose previous work I’ve enjoyed and his brand new film all adds up to a perfect way to spend an evening.

The four stories are loosely linked together by friendships, connections and chance meetings between the characters, and this works well as a connecting thread without feeling too contrived. The first story is Afia’s (Nandita Das)and deals with her determination to have a child by herself after her divorce.  Her friend Megha (Juhi Chawla) speaks as the’ voice of society’ condemning Afia for what she perceives as selfishness and the story raises a number of questions around the issues of single parenthood and artificial insemination versus adoption. The debates between Afia and Megha are honest and natural and the conversations Afia has with a number of her male acquaintances as she looks for a sperm donor ring embarrassingly true. Onir described Afia’s story as the most ‘Bollywood’ and it does follow a more traditional story telling path compared to the rest of the film.  I don’t relate to this story personally as Afia’s decisions would not be mine, although I mainly agree with her right to choose.

The second story is Megha’s own and describes a trip she makes back to Srinigar for business, having left the area some twenty years before with her family as part of the Kashmiri Pandit evacuation. She stays with her childhood friend Rubina (Manisha Koirala) and the contrast between the two women; one who was forced to leave and one who had to stay, forms the focus of this section. The suffering on both sides is evident and Rubina envies Megha’s freedom of living in Delhi away from the continual threat of fighting. Megha in turn resents having had to flee the violent attacks on her family.  Srinigar looks very similar to my home town of Belfast in the seventies, with bombed out buildings, soldiers everywhere and the ubiquitous presence of barbed wire.  But behind the rubble there is still beauty in the landscape and Onir manages to capture this equally as well as the devastation. This was a very touching story and I was surprised to read in the statistics at the end of the film just how many people were displaced as this is something I know very little about.

The third story is that of film maker Abhimanyu (Sanjay Suri) and deals with the taboo subject of child abuse. We see that Abhi was abused by his step father as a child and this is his story about finally being able to speak up about his childhood. Abhi has recurrent dreams of his mother and many of the scenes also have a dream like quality as if Abhi can only bear to relive them a step removed. There is a well-defined contrast between Abhi’s party life style and large group of casual friends and the scenes where he confronts his past with his close friend Apama.  Throughout the story Abhi is conflicted about his sexuality and his childhood experiences have had an obvious effect on his ability to form relationships. This is a very difficult subject to film but Onir and Sanjay manage to deal with it sensitively and the story is well told.

 The final story is the most shocking for me in many ways, not because it features men kissing, but because of the events that follow. This is Omar’s story and explains how Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code is used to extort money – and more – from homosexual men. Omar is a hustler picked up in a bar by Jai before they are spotted by a corrupt cop. The confrontation is graphic and detailed, and it’s very disturbing to know that it is based on true accounts.  Onir expressed his amazement during the Q and A session that the film got through the censors without getting any visual cuts (mainly referring to this story) and I am amazed along with him. Some of the dialogue was muted, however the subtitles were abundantly clear as to the viciousness of the scene depicted despite the many ****’s. Rahul Bose as Jai was incredible in this and was able to effectively portray subtle changes in Jai’s mannerisms as a consequence of his experience. I am very impressed with his performance as he really made me believe this story, much as I didn’t want to.

The film starts with an easy to digest story and ends with a truly sickening one. The progression is deliberate and the style of shooting changes along with the dialogue delivery. Afia’s story is shot with open angles and plenty of space, but by the time we reach Omar’s story the style is much more closed in and claustrophobic. The dialogue becomes more graphic in each story as does the action on-screen. I find it hard to describe my feelings about this film – I can’t say that I enjoyed it, because I felt too uncomfortable while watching.  And it’s not a film to be enjoyed as such anyway. It is brilliantly filmed – the actors are outstanding and the stories themselves are very well written and I can appreciate it as a work of art. It would be more accurate to say that I enjoyed the experience and think that the film is excellent, just not one for everyone’s tastes. Thought-provoking and challenging, I Am gets 4½ stars.

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Do Dooni Chaar (2010)

I was pleased to see this as part of the Indian Film Festival as Do Dooni Chaar didn’t get a cinema release here, despite starring legendary couple Rishi and Neetu Kapoor. It only attracted a very small audience at this showing—maybe 20 people —which really surprised me. Half of that number ran for the door when the subtitles failed to materialise, in search of someone in charge. But all was OK. The film was restarted (the Indian audience members complained loudly and jokingly about having to watch the titles again), the subs kicked in and we all settled down. Well, I hadn’t moved. I was going to watch it regardless so it was more fun to listen to all the huffing and grumbling!

The film was picked up for distribution by Disney and that tells you almost everything you need to know. It’s a nice film with message about decency and family, all wrapped up in a sweet sentimental shell. There’s nothing to object to, but I didn’t feel there was much to get excited about either. It was just… nice. And sometimes a nice film is just what you want.

Rishi Kapoor plays Santosh Duggal, a maths teacher and father of two. His wife Kusum (Neetu Kapoor) runs the household on his very limited income and maintains the cramped apartment to the best of her ability.

 

The kids, Payal (Aditi Vasudev) and Deepu (Archit Krishna), are typical teenagers and want all the latest things and best brands. They don’t have a lot of respect for their father, and see his poverty and lowly job rather than his values and intelligence.

The film opens to an argument about how Santosh’s INR7700 tax refund would be spent. The Duggals are a noisy, argumentative family, and the scene is punctuated by doors slamming and lots of shouting as people careen around the tiny flat. Kusum wants a fridge while the kids want everything from an iPod to dish TV. Payal, depressed by her lack of cash and stylish clothes, is a moody teen who bosses her weedy boyfriend around.  Deepu, or as he prefers to be called, Sandy is cruising by on charm. Until he comes unstuck, Sandy is a slick character with an eye for the girls and an unusual fried chicken based romantic style.

 

The central issue of the film is the pressure on Santosh to buy a car to replace his antique scooter. The car represents so many things to the Duggal family; success, status, independence, pride. But they can’t afford it. They have to budget carefully to have chicken for dinner so a car is a huge deal. The stress of this situation almost drives Santosh to make some extremely dubious decisions and accept money for giving a bad student a passing grade. He seems to embody the nice guy who finishes last, held back by his honesty and simplicity. He refuses to allow Payal to take a call centre job, ostensibly because it will delay her education, but as Kusum points out he also forced her to leave work on their marriage. She is at her wit’s end trying to keep up with the needs of her family when outgoings always exceed their income. The clash of old school and new world thinking is played really well and the arguments have the authentic ring of conversations that have been had over and over.

Rishi is so effective in the quieter, more soulful, moments when he drops some of his actorly mannerisms and he really looks and sounds like a tired dad.  He has a lovely conversation with Deepu/Sandy where they talk about why Santosh didn’t fly into a rage over a discovery and ends with him quietly asking the boy to make the right choices. Santosh’s relationship with Payal is more challenging and those scenes are more vocal and aggressive. But Payal discovers a new admiration when she sees how much he meant to his old students, and how highly they thought of him for his work ethic and standards. I have to say, Rishi didn’t look at all at home in the tiny apartment and I wonder if he went to boot camp to learn to handle an iron. Neetu plays Kusum as the driving force inside the family home, channelling her energy into alternately cajoling and threatening her husband and kids.  She is charming and energetic, refusing to let the exhaustion of her routine slow her down. Santosh and Kusum have a very delicately played scene where they try not to discuss the potential bribe, and Kusum is all for taking it although she doesn’t want to do anything seriously wrong. In a scene at a family wedding, Neetu drags Rishi out to dance and they prove the old sparkle is still there, even if his moves are suspect. There would be something a bit amiss if they didn’t have great chemistry!

I wish I hadn’t read some interviews with the Kapoors about the making of the film. They both went on a bit too much about how their costumes were just average off the rack shop bought clothes and how they didn’t mind wearing something so common to make the film work (I’m paraphrasing). So every time Rishi pulled on another of his knitted vests, I felt an eyeroll coming on. But Rishi IS synonymous with knitwear so it was also quite pleasing.

The supporting cast were all good. I especially liked Aditi Vasudev’s performance. She was bratty and whiny but also had Kusum’s strength of will. She wasn’t at all glamorous, and looked like a typical student. Akhilendra Mishra was also fun as the neighbour Farooqui. He and Rishi had some lovely scenes as the men tried to avoid their warring wives.

I really enjoyed the family scenes, and thought the dialogue was excellent in those episodes. I was less taken in by the scenes with the neighbours, and the final ‘I just make sweets but a good teacher makes great human beings’ speech was just too much for my taste. The message had been coming through loud and clear so being hit over the head with it for the final fifteen minutes or so was overkill.

I also loved the neighbourhood locations and the glimpses of shops, houses, schools and other settings. I always like a film that gives me a strong sense of place and Habib Faisal did an excellent job in making the locations seem so real. The soundtrack is punchy and matched the inner city feel perfectly.

It was a pleasant enough way to spend a couple of hours, and always nice to see old favourites show they still have form. It’s an almost old-fashioned film, and it promotes values of decency and honesty. It is very sentimental, but not too syrupy. I give Do Dooni Chaar 3 stars.

Aaranya Kaandam

Aaranya Kaandam should come with a warning – an excess of fake violence, actual real life violence against chickens and naked Jackie Shroff. Yes really! Jackie Shroff takes his clothes off in this film.  We have no idea why the organisers of the Indian Film Festival decided to choose this film over many other excellent Tamil releases this year. Perhaps they wanted to see Jackie with his kit off, but why we all had to suffer is a mystery!

The film is a long (too long) tale of double crosses by Pasupathy (Sampath Raj) when he is caught between two rival factions of gangsters. One gang is led by the aging Ayya (Jackie Shroff) and Pasupathy starts out as his more adventurous and able lieutenant. Ayya resents his younger henchman and when Pasupathy organises a drug deal through a corrupt cop to steal cocaine from a rival gang we know it’s all going to turn out badly. Adding to the mix are Ayya’s mistress Subbu who wants to escape, Kaalayan who manages to stumble across the drugs, his competent little son Kodukkapuli, and the other gang leaders Gajapathy (who has an impressive pair of ears) and his brother Gajendran.

Although the overall story is interesting there is too much time spent setting the scene and explaining exactly who is who.  First time writer and director Thiagarajan Kumararaja seems to have been heavily influenced by films such as Traffic and Pulp Fiction where there are a number of apparently unrelated threads which come together to form the climax of the film. But while he manages to  bring the various storylines to a more or less satisfactory conclusion, they don’t all work as well as each other. In addition to the pacing problems, there is a heavy reliance on gimmicky edits and lighting effects that lose their impact through over use. The actual cinematography was excellent, and the street and interior scenes were saturated with colour. Again, we suspect some of the highly stylised angles and use of colour filters was influenced by films like Traffic but it lacked structure so it looked a bit too try-hard.

The soundtrack is a mish mash of musical styles and sounds. We think this might have been meant to create an art house feel, but really it sounds more like someone bought a world music CD and used that instead of going to the trouble of composing anything special. Like the gimmicky editing the music became intrusive and sometimes detracted from the scenes, often simply because it was too loud.

The story of Kaalayan and his son is rather laboured and the inclusion of some rather nasty cock-fighting scenes with lots of lingering slow motion shots and buckets of gore was quite unnecessary. A lot of this could have been cut without losing any of the backstory in our opinion.  The child actor was fairly effective, and the audience certainly responded to his performance.

Sampath Raj puts in an impressive performance as the man trying to work his way out of a difficult situation. He has a good hero run, and puts it to use frequently throughout the film.

We know that traditionally anyone who is Jackie’s friend in a film seems to be marked for a horrible death or at least significant misfortune so we were expecting the wheels to fall off for Pasupathy. Jackie Shroff grunts his way through a series of inexplicable grimaces and as we mentioned decides to bare all. Thankfully there is pixilation but just not enough of it. Jackie Shroff himself may have preferred a larger area of pixilation as frankly it appears there was not all that much to be covered up! It’s not surprising that Subbu wants to escape from his early morning coughs and gurgles as well as the obvious horror of naked Jackie. Ravi Krishna is the gullible Loser who gets caught up in her plans for flight. Both he and Yasmin Ponnappa in her debut role turn in good performances despite a hackneyed plotline.

What does work is the dialogue, which seems snappy and funny despite the overuse of swearing in the subtitles. According to our Tamil language expert the characters weren’t actually swearing most of the time, so it seems strange that the subtitles decided to include as much profanity as they did. Especially when it seemed that every second word out of the kid’s mouth was something that our parents would still disapprove of. Maybe they knew there wasn’t enough plot to last the distance?

Temple says: This was a bore and a disappointment. The entertaining moments were few and far between, and the direction wasn’t focussed enough to make the incident heavy plot stay on track. I quite like Sampath Raj and if the story had been better balanced, this might have been a good gangland thriller. As it is, it’s a mess. I give it 2 stars – for Sampath Raj and so the torture of the poor roosters wasn’t in vain.

Heather says: While I didn’t find this film boring, it really wasn’t pleasant to sit through. There was a lot of really unnecessary violence of the gruesome and graphic kind, and the rooster fight scenes were totally unwarranted. Jackie Shroff was a real disappointment, although I didn’t have high expectations from him anyway. I can think of many actors who would have played this role much more convincingly – although all preferably without the nude scene! There were some good moments hidden amongst the carnage, some reasonable performances from a number of the actors, and even some good comedy. But not enough to save this film from collapsing under the weight of all the various plot threads. 2 stars from me.