Bombay

Bombay is the second of Mani Ratnam’s ‘terrorist trilogy’, and is the one that I find the most disturbing. I remember the news reports from the real-life events that happened in Bombay in 1992 which are recreated here in authentic detail, and I find the violence here more confronting and realistic, despite a rather romanticised ending. In Bombay, Mani Ratnam juxtaposes a ‘forbidden’ romance between a Hindu man and a Muslim woman with the Bombay riots to create a compelling and disturbing look at the religious divide in India. The film shows how prejudice can drive extreme acts of hatred but also includes the counter ideals of selflessness and acceptance with an almost fairy-tale spin on good and evil. It’s another stunning film from Mani Ratnam that still makes an impact to-day and along with A.R. Rahman’s soundtrack deserves all the awards and recognition that it has achieved over the years since its 1995 release.

The story starts with Shekhar (Arvind Swami) returning home to visit his family in a river-side village in Tamil Nadu. Just as Shekhar arrives he sees Shaila Banu (Manisha Koirala) and instantly he falls in love. Luckily the attraction is mutual and despite their different religions, a romance begins to grow between the two. Shekhar has been studying journalism in Bombay, which gives him a city sophistication and an intolerance for his father’s prejudiced views. Narayanan Pillai (Nassar) is a devout Hindu whose worst fear seems to be that his son will marry a bride from the North of India, since he is unable to imagine the horror of a daughter-in-law from a different religion. Shaila’s family is just as appalled by the thought of Shekhar and her father Basheer (Kitty) quickly arranges a marriage for his wayward daughter when he finds out about the affair. The clandestine nature of the romance allows for some beautiful camera work from Rajiv Menon and we also get the beautiful Kannalanae as Shaila spots Shekhar at a wedding.

I’ve read that Mani Ratnam wanted these scenes to be beautiful as a contrast to events in the second half, and I find it interesting that his idea of beauty is in the wind and rain that are a constant presence in the village. For me, accustomed to the weather in Ireland, I’d thought that this was supposed to represent the cold attitude of the two families to the romance until I read Baradwaj Rangan’s interview with Mani Ratnam. In Ireland, wind and rain is always cold and miserable, but since visiting Tamil Nadu I can appreciate why gusts of wind and showers of rain would be beautiful in a hot and often dry landscape. Despite knowing this, I still feel chilled when I see the wind whipping Shaila’s veil and skirt around, while the crashing waves and constant rain strike me as cold and gloomy even though I can appreciate the beauty of the landscape.

At the same time, coming from Northern Ireland, where it was just as taboo for a Catholic and a Protestant to start a relationship, I can really relate to the problem faced by Shekhar and Shaila; another reason why I find this film so confronting. The attitudes and expectations of society resonate closely to my own experiences growing up surrounded by religious intolerance and I am always thankful that my own family had a more progressive attitude. It does mean that I can understand their predicament here, and to some extent why their families are so worried as well. Beyond their own antipathy to the relationship there is the worry that society will condemn both Shaila and Shekhar, leading to ostracism and a continual risk to their safety.

With their families at loggerheads, Shekhar and Shaila elope to Bombay. They quickly get married and before long have two twin boys Kabir Narayan (Master Harsha) and Kamal Basheer (Master Hriday). The boys are named for their respective grandfathers but are brought up in both religions, while Shekhar and Shaila are easily accepted in their neighbourhood despite their ‘mixed’ marriage. But when the Babri Masjid is demolished and riots break out across Bombay, the boys are lost in the city alone. They are caught by a gang of men who terrorise the children, pouring petrol over them and starting to set them alight in a shocking scene full of religious intolerance and hatred. These are two young boys with no idea what religion is, let alone the differences between Hindus and Muslims, and with their brutalisation, Mani Ratnam exposes the full horror of the riots and the absolute inhumanity of the rioters.

While relations between the communities in Bombay are breaking down, Narayanan and Basheer have gradually turned their enmity into a guarded tolerance, so when both travel to Bombay in the wake of the December riots, they are able to live with Shekhar and Shaila without too much trouble. As the violence continues in the city, their relationship continues to improve as they realise the extremism and intolerance doesn’t reflect either of their own beliefs.

Some of the most powerful scenes here show Shekhar interviewing the religious and political leaders and asking them when the riots will stop, but no-one seems able or even willing to try and bring peace. As riots again grip the city and neighbourhoods are set on fire, the family is torn apart once more with Shekhar and Shaila left to tour the hospitals and mortuaries in their search for Kabir and Kamal. Meanwhile the boys find kindness from unlikely places as Bombay slowly begins to return to normal.

The film has graphic scenes of the violence and does not spare the audience any of the horror associated with the riots and the aftermath. The scene of bodies in the morgue is particularly bleak, even though Mani Ratnam doesn’t explicitly show grieving families – he doesn’t need to. The anguish and despair come through clearly as Shekhar staggers through room after room of bodies, men women and children, Hindu and Muslim, all mixed together, in a terrible reminder that this is the real cost of the riots. Although some of the scenes here do feel rather contrived, such as when Shekhar confronts two of his friends who are fighting on opposite sides, many more appear authentic, painting a picture of neighbour against neighbour with the main casualties being the innocent bystanders. When the police enter the picture (including Prakash Raj as Inspector Kumar) the level of violence seems to jump yet again, and the images of Kabir and Kamal hiding from the authorities are powerful reminders of the political aspects to these events.

The romance is beautifully told with plenty of symbolism in the images of sheets of rain separating Shekhar from his family, and Shaila losing her abaya as she runs towards Shekhar and freedom. The second half is brutally realistic but still has beautiful scenes of the family together and the developing relationship between Narayanan and Basheer. Rajiv Menon’s cinematography is excellent and A.R. Rahman’s soundtrack perfectly complements the visuals while Raju Sundaram and Prabhu Deva ensure that the dance numbers are equally spectacular.

Arvind Swami is excellent in a role that requires him to switch from a love-struck young man to a desperate and terrified one as he searches the streets for his children. His emotions are clear and easy to read, particularly in the second half when he begins to realise the political manipulations that are behind the riots. His fear and desperation as he searches for his children are frighteningly realistic while his disgust at the politicians, religious leaders and the rioters themselves also comes across well. Manisha Koirala too is wonderful in her role, and brings plenty of emotion to her character at every stage. Although she looks fragile, her character has plenty of determination and a fierce capacity to fight back when necessary. I love her performance here as she conveys so much without words, letting her expression say everything instead. The support cast are all good too, and Nassar and Kitty steal the show whenever they are on screen together. Their initial animosity and then gradual acceptance help to ground the film and stop it becoming too overly emotional as well as providing some mild comedy that also helps to lighten the atmosphere.

Overall, Bombay is a beautifully made film that takes on both a societal issue and a horrific subject to make strong and compelling political and social statements. Mani Ratnam does hammer home the manipulation message rather forcefully, and the final scenes are a little too simplistic, especially after all the drama that has come before, but despite these few issues, the film still delivers a powerful message that continues to resonate, even all these years later. It’s a disturbing film but that’s what makes it such essential viewing. Highly recommended. 4 ½ stars.

Dil Se..

Dil Se..

Dil Se is the third film in Mani Ratnam’s terrorist trilogy following on from Roja and Bombay. This was actually the first of these that I watched, mainly due to the presence of Shah Rukh Khan who was the major draw for me at the time, but also because the film is in Hindi, which I was trying to learn. It’s remained one of my favourite Mani Ratnam movies though and I find it hard to believe that it’s now 20 years since its release in 1998. I love this film for so many reasons, the amazing music, wonderful choreography and stunning scenery but also because the story grabs hold and remains captivating – every single time. Dil Se wasn’t a hit in India, despite winning awards at festivals and doing well in the USA and UK, but it now has a deservedly classic status and is well worth watching or revisiting if you haven’t seen it for a while.

Dil Se is the story of a Dehli-based radio journalist who falls in love with a mysterious woman he sees on a deserted railway platform one night. Amar (Shah Rukh Khan) describes it as “the shortest love story ever” when she leaves on the next train after sending him off to get a cup of hot tea. What I love here is the contrast between them, even in these first few minutes. She doesn’t say a word except for ‘a cup of hot tea’ while Amar never stops talking. It’s an early clue that these two aren’t likely partners but also raises questions about why Amar becomes just so obsessed by this woman based on this one brief meeting.

Amar’s assignment for All India Radio takes him to the north of the country where insurgents have been engaged in terrorist activity and Amar wants to speak to them as well as garner regional thoughts on the 50thAnniversary of Indian Independence. When he does finally reach his destination, after the wonderful Chaiyya Chaiyya on the train, he spots the same woman in the crowd and immediately runs after her. While Meghna (Manisha Koirala) is perfectly plain that she wants absolutely nothing to do with him, Amar refuses to take no for an answer and pesters her persistently until her friends take matters into their own hands and beat him up.

This starts out as the usual stalking = love trope seen in so many Indian films. It is really annoying that Amar fails to take no for an answer and is completely relentless in his pursuit. What I do like though is that Meghna is brutally clear, trying everything from ignoring Amar, to telling him that she is married, just to get away from him. All my sympathies are with her at this point, and I really don’t like Amar who just seems to be selfish and frankly obnoxious. But this seems more than just stalking. Amar is completely obsessed with this girl who won’t even give him her name and even the beating fails to dampen his desire.

Amar follows Meghna on a bus, walking with her when the bus breaks down and even attempting to force her to kiss him. Meghna has a panic attack at this point and hints that she has had experiences in the past that may have contributed to her determined refusal of Amar. She also continually tells him that she isn’t what he thinks she is, and finally we learn that she is part of the terrorist organisation. Manisha Koirala is completely amazing here. She appears ethereal and wraith-like, as if a strong gust of wind would blow her away, but also shows such incredible mental strength demonstrated by her continual refusal to yield to Amar. It’s clear as the story develops that she does have feeling for him, but her allegiance to her cause is deeper, possibly just more entrenched, and her emotional turmoil fleetingly moves across her face each time she has to interact with Amar. It’s a brilliant performance, particularly in the scenes where she reveals what has happened to her and tries to explain to Amar why she has turned to terrorism.

Gradually rapport develops between the couple, but Amar is left devastated when Meghna leaves him during the night and he ends up returning to Delhi alone to prepare for his upcoming wedding to Preeti (Preity Zinta). Preita is wonderful here in her début role portraying a confidently independent but still innocent girl from Kerala. Ok, the Malayali bit is a tad strange, but the rest is brilliant! I love how she refers to sex as “honka bonka bonks”, and her directness is refreshing after all the mystery and secrets surrounding Meghna. She also gets a cool song in Jiya Jale, which has some of my favourite picturisations in the whole film.

I’ve read a number of times that the film depicts the seven stages of love from Arabic literature comprising attraction, infatuation, love, reverence, worship, obsession and death. Using this theme, Amar’s obsession makes more sense and it helps to explain why he continually follows Meghna despite her apparent disinterest. There is the moment of attraction when he glimpses her face on the railway station. Infatuation where he sees her everywhere and thinks about the mystery woman before this deepens into love. Reverence and worship are pretty much covered in Satrangi Re where Meghna appears in all seven colours of the song. Like most of the songs this seems to be another fantasy sequence, although it’s not clear if this is Amar or Meghna’s dream.

Throughout, the contrast between Meghna and Amar is stark. Meghna is at home in the mountains and dresses in all enveloping costumes that hide her identity just as much as her refusal to speak. When she does talk, she is clear and articulate – she knows exactly what she is doing and why, and has little time for anything that will take her away from her mission. Amar is a city boy whose father was in the Army and he has little understanding of the world outside Delhi. In an interview with one of the terrorist leaders, the questions he asks and his comments make it clear that he has no understanding of the issues faced by minority groups or why they feel so betrayed by the government. This makes his refusal to leave Meghna even more poignant as he will stand with her even though he cannot believe in her view of the world.

There is so much detail in this film too. Right from the start there is the threat of violence with soldiers stopping and searching Amar’s taxi on the way to the train station. In Assam there are army checkpoints and barbed wire barricades, some of which even make an appearance in the song picturisation for Dil Se. The scenery the north of India here is beautiful and stunning with the first sequences set in Assam and then later in Ladakh. Cinematographer Santosh Sivan does a fantastic job and brings surrealness to the scenes shot in Ladakh where Meghna and Amar are alone and able to talk to each other without the pressures of his family and her responsibilities. Back in the city the contrasts between Meghna and Preeti are emphasised by clever camerawork including a memorable scene where Amar’s mother (Sheeba Chaddha) asks Meghna to be a stand-in model for Preeti’s bridal jewellery. Added in to the wonderful visuals is the superb soundtrack, one of A.R. Rahman’s best, and I love every single song. Farah Khan’s choreography is spectacular too, and it’s hard to believe that there could ever be a better dance routine on top of a moving train. This is also one of SRK’s best ever performances where he moves between joy and despair at the drop of a hat and really nails the role. He throws himself into the choreography too, and his facial expressions are brilliantly expressive, particularly when he is trying to understand Meghna’s actions.

Dil Se is simply a great film. The subject matter is tragic but there is a lot of joy in the film too and the combination of stunning scenery with a good story and excellent music means there really is something for everyone. The cast are all fantastic and with so much detail to the story there always seems to be something new to pick up on with every viewing. This is a film I rewatch regularly and I highly recommend it if you’ve never seen it before. 4 ½ stars.

Chekka Chivantha Vaanam (2018)

Chekka Chivantha Vaanam

Mani Ratnam’s latest is a surprisingly conventional crime drama that pits three brothers against each other as they vie to take over their father’s gangster business. Unusually there is little character development for each of the brothers, so it does take some time to become connected to the film and get to grips with exactly who is who (and who is sleeping with who). However, the finale is excellent and does keep you guessing right up until the end, while Vijay Sethupathi, Arvind Swami and Jyothika are all superb throughout.

Prakash Raj plays the ageing gangster Senapathi who survives an attack by two assassins dressed as police officers at the start of the film. His wife Lakshmi (Jayasudha) is also in the car, and it’s interesting that their conversation prior to the attack mentions Sena’s infidelities rather than introducing the family members or focusing on the crime empire. However, it’s not until the end that this and other snippets of information come together to make a satisfying whole and many of the seemingly throwaway statements are much more revealing than they initially seem.

Sena’s three sons all return home as their father and mother are rushed to hospital and it doesn’t take long until they are all at each other’s throats, arguing over who will take their father’s place. The eldest son Varadan (Arvind Swami) complains that Sena treats him as just another henchman, when he feels that he deserves better and has the best claim to inherit his father’s empire. The middle son Thyagu (Arun Vijay) lives in Dubai where he spends most of his time on a yacht discussing real estate projects with wealthy Arab backers. He seems to be more a businessman than a gangster and his stylish dress and polished wife reinforce that impression. The youngest son Ethi (Silambarasan) is a drug and gun runner currently based in Serbia and definitely at the bottom of the pecking order, a fact he seems to accept without too much rancour.

None of these men appear to have what it takes to run a criminal network as they indulge in petty arguments and spiteful digs at each other. Each has their own flaws that seem to disqualify them for the top job. Varadan is the most like his father but he lacks initiative and follows a predictable and well-trodden path as he pursues his father’s attackers. Varadan immediately accuses his father’s rival Chinnappadasan (Thiagarajan) of being behind the attack but it seems to be the easy option and doesn’t require Varadan to be anything other than the thug he has always been. Thyagu is slick and more polished, but despite his cutthroat business skills, he seems to lack the violent mentality needed to maintain control over the motley collection of gangsters so, despite his egotistical belief that he is the obvious choice of heir, he seems unlikely to survive long in Chennai. Ethi is unpredictable and erratic, and doesn’t seem to have the necessary concentration span to be able to successfully run a crime business.

Rasool (Vijay Sethupathi) is Varadan’s childhood friend, and the two have remained close over the years despite Rasool being a police officer. At the start of the film, Rasool is suspended from the police force for an overzealous attack on a student, so he has plenty of time to help out his friend while attempting to get his suspension overturned. As the brothers squabble amongst themselves, Rasool is always there to help keep the peace, just as long as he stays off the alcohol.

Varadan is married to Chitra (Jyothika) who is loyal to her husband despite his affair with TV reporter Parvathi (Aditi Rao Hydari). She’s an incredibly strong character who seems determined to hold the family together through the sheer force of her willpower alone, but when the brothers finally descend into open warfare all her support is with her husband in spite of everything he as done. At one point I was hopeful that Chitra was going to turn out to be the last one standing, but alas that wasn’t to be and she stays true to her character until the bitter end. Thyagu’s wife Renu (Aishwarya Rajesh) is less supportive of her husband, particularly when she ends up in jail after drugs are hidden in their apartment, while Ethi’s shortlived romance with Chaaya (Dayana Erappa) seems to only be included to act as the catalyst for his later suspicions when Chaaya is shot and killed on their honeymoon.

Initially the brothers unit in their search for the men behind the attack on Sena, but after Sena’s death it turns into a free for all as Ethi and Thyagu team up in opposition to Varadan, while accusations fly as to who was the real culprit behind the assassination attempt. Chinnappadasan is also out for blood after the brothers target his family and kill his son-in-law while the police have also vowed not to stand-by and let the gangster take over the city. The death toll rises inexorably as the brothers get closer and closer to finally determining who will take Sena’s place as head kingpin and their various rivals also close in for the kill.

The problem here is that for most of the film the brothers are only lightly sketched and we don’t know why they have chosen to act as they do. The women in their life are even more broadly drawn with just enough detail to know who they are and how they relate to Sena and his sons. There is a daughter as well, but she appears only briefly during the celebration for her new baby and I didn’t even manage to catch her name. This lack of any real motivation for the brothers makes it difficult to relate to their characters and, since none of them are particularly likeable, it’s also hard to decide who to support in their struggle to take over the top spot. Some of the support cast also appear to be completely superfluous, and it’s not until quite late in the story that the reason for the inclusion of, for example, Parvathi or Chaaya, becomes clear. But once the final twist in the tale is revealed, suddenly everything makes more sense, and many of the scenes with Lakshmi, Chitra and the others take on a deeper meaning. As too does the squabble between the brothers, and that ensures Chekka Chivantha Vaanam is a much more intriguing film than it first appears.

A.R. Rahman’s music threads through the screenplay with different themes recurring as the characters come and go, and the songs mostly occur in snippets over pieces of the action. Santosh Sivan is in charge of cinematography and does a very capable job, although what is most interesting is what is not shown except in brief glimpses, almost too fast to catch. In keeping with the twist at the end, the final images of Rasool and the three brothers in a circling jeep at the top of a cliff are the most stunning. The ground is a rich red, while the sky is a vibrant blue and the sea a restless azure, making a vivid contrast between the stark but grandiose scenery and the petty, backstabbing action taking place in the jeep.

This is a film that I want to see again now that I know the ending. I suspect that there are clues scattered along the way although on reflection I can only identify a few, and I know that more will becone clear on a second watch through. I also didn’t catch the music as well as I should as I was concentrating too much on the action. The actors too appear much better on looking back, as the whole point of that lack of characterisation and interaction is only revealed at the end. It’s hard to say much without revealing the final twist but it’s the end that does make Chekka Chivantha Vaanam well worth watching and overall one of Mani Ratnam’s better films, despite the initial slow build.