Billu (2009)

Billu-title

So. If you are considering a leap onto the “original is best” Malayalam bandwagon and insist that I must see Kadha Parayumbol, please take a moment, breathe, perhaps go make a cup of tea instead. I’m perfectly happy with this film! What makes Billu work so well for me is that I have a high degree of awareness and appreciation of Shah Rukh’s career so the references and sly jabs at and by SRK really resonate. I wouldn’t have that to the same extent with a different regional cast, even if it is Mammootty in the big star role.

Priyadarshan directs a deceptively simple slice of life drama. Billu (Irrfan, in no surname mode) is a barber in picturesque Budbuda. Sahir Khan (Shah Rukh Khan in King Khan mode) is a massive movie star. Sahir suggests Budbuda as the location for the village scenes in his current project. Filming in the village was essential to the story as otherwise how would the Martian brother find his long lost sibling who was wearing a matching locket that beeped. I liked the interplay of real life and filmidom, in scenes when Sahir was enduring the plot narration, or when the villagers watched the shooting as though they were seeing life on Mars.

Mayhem erupts in Budbuda once the villagers find out that Billu and Sahir were childhood friends. Everyone wants to get an autograph, to get their brush with fame, and all the bigwigs demand that Billu introduce them to Sahir. But Billu repeatedly dodges the issue, even when his wife Bindiya (Lara Dutta) and annoying kids keep asking. Eventually the villagers start to believe he lied and accuse him of defrauding them of the gifts they had willingly pressed upon him.

Irrfan relies on his slightly oddball, rumpled, everyman persona for Billu and it works a treat. He comes across as good hearted but a little cynical, proud in himself but overwhelmed by the difference in status between himself and Sahir. Billu has told his family of a childhood friendship with Sahir, but is totally unprepared for how his village reacts when they find out. He is reluctant to contact Sahir, citing bygone time and the difference in their positions. But Billu’s inarticulate objections fall on fallow ground. It’s interesting that when Billu was negotiating with the school or others he could be quite glib, if apparently simple. Billu did go to the shooting and marvelled at the spectacle of Kareena’s duckface in Marjaani along with everyone else, but he flubbed all opportunities to speak to Sahir. I think he just wanted fate to intervene and take care of the logistics so he could see his mate without forcing himself upon Sahir.

Lara Dutta is beautiful but not too filmi glam as Bindiya. I could feel her frustration, not at being poor, but at having to be subservient and cop all the crap that comes with being seen as a beggar. Bindiya dreams of meeting Sahir and of the benefits that knowing a big star could give her family, but isn’t greedy. She just knows how things are when you’re the outsiders, and wants to take opportunities where they arise. Bindiya obviously thinks the world of Billu and it took a lot for her to actually ask him if his friendship was real. I thought it said a lot that there was no rancour in the conversation, and Billu still walked her to the school to hear Sahir speak. They had a solid relationship and as more of their backstory was revealed I had more appreciation for her.

Sahir is often absent from the action, but his presence permeates everything. I like SRK as a bad guy, and as a hero, but I especially like him as a hero who still has a healthy reservoir of cynicism alongside the cheesy entertainer reflexes (I also loved OSO). I enjoyed his character’s observations on controversy, and expectations audiences have, and his little encounters with Chaubey the guesthouse manager. Some dialogue sounded very similar to things Shah Rukh has said himself so I found the added element which may or may not be a reflection of his own views very appealing. Apart from That Speech he keeps Sahil quite sensible and vaguely amused by all the shenanigans unfolding around him, with occasional flashes of crankiness that may be caused by chafing from all the bedazzled outfits.

Sahir’s moment with Billu is quite beautiful, and so much better than the big build up that preceded it. It’s a performance I enjoy both for the overt manifestation of star power and the glimpse under the glossy veneer, and the expert manipulation by a master of crowd pleasing.

Shah Rukh’s own career is referenced extensively in posters on village walls, old movie stills and promo pictures, a montage celebrating Sahir’s stardom. The film within a film device also allowed some spectacularly silly and blinged out song concepts as they didn’t have to fit in with the plot as such, and could also use a parade of Shah Rukh’s recent-ish heroines. In every song there is a moment when he gets a goofy grin and he can’t help uncle dancing a bit despite the choreographers’ best efforts. I love it. Plus I think Evil Anthony makes an appearance.

Each shot serves to express the focal character’s universe, from set design to lighting to the framing. It’s a pleasure just to look at this film. Pritam made Billu’s songs and background music more organic than the filmi stuff, and they were accompanied by lush “real world” visuals lovingly captured by V Manikandan.

“Jaaun Kahan” is a bewildered meditation, while “Khudaya Khair” is a sweetly romantic dream that could star either your husband or Sahir Khan, mood depending. The village setting was glorious and while I’m pretty sure it was in Tamil Nadu I chose not to overthink the geography/language mash up.

The standouts in the support cast were Asrani as Naubat Chacha, a rare voice of moderation and always seeing Billu’s side, and both Om Puri and Manoj Joshi throwing their weight around as self-important and self-proclaimed VIPs. I also liked Rasika Joshi as the long suffering principal who turned out to be not such a bad old stick.

Would this film make you a Shah Rukh fan if you weren’t one already? Maybe not. But it is a departure from his Rahul shtick and there is enough of a gleam in his eye and a quirk to those famous eyebrows to make me think he had a bit of fun playing with his own image. And I’m a sucker for both sublime and ridiculous visuals. 4 stars!

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Kanchivaram

Kanchivaram (2008)

Kanchivaram is a slice of life social drama that largely rests on an excellent performance by Prakash Raj. Priyadarshan eschews the broad almost hyper style more common in his Hindi comedies and delivers a thoughtful and subdued film.

The film opens with a prelude explaining the significance of wearing silk at marriage and on death, and that the weavers were never in a financial position that would allow them to wear the fabric they wove. Vengadam (Prakash Raj) is an exceptional weaver and a natural leader in his community. A visiting writer (Sreekumar) introduces the village men to communism. Vengadam initiates collective bargaining for the weavers, which leads to a lengthy strike. But he had also promised that his daughter would be married in a silk sari, impossible to manage when he is not working. He steals silk, a hank at a time, and secretly weaves the sari he promised her. The conflict between his political and personal ideals and his love for his family is the root of the story.

The story is presented as a series of flashbacks. Vengadam is paroled from jail and travels back to the village by bus, with sounds and incidents on the journey triggering his memories of earlier times. This structure allowed me to concentrate on what was happening now, and to absorb the emotion of the story rather than wondering what would happen. His story unfolds from his marriage, birth of his daughter, the death of his wife and eventually the reason for his incarceration. The breaks in the flow as Vengadam was recalled to himself on the journey just sharpened the contrast between the bluff confident weaver and the broken man on the bus.

Priyadarshan frames the story in the political context of the rise of Communism before party membership was legalised. He efficently sets the scene of the industrial arrangements, the workers dependency on the factory, the clandestine political activism, in just in a few scenes. There are visual cues as to how things stand. The factory owner usually appears sitting or standing on a dais at a higher level than the workers. The communist writer who raises the political awareness of Vengadam and Sarathy skulks around in the dark, fearful of the police.

I’m always interested in industrial relations and the evolution of employee rights and the law so that aspect was appealing. And I particularly liked the villagers reaction to some social theatre – initially passive but on their feet and cheering like any mass movie audience when the ‘blood’ spatter started.

Prakash Raj is wonderful as Vengadam. Whether playing the younger carefree newlywed or the damaged man released on parole he is completely convincing. Vengadam has most of the dialogue in the film but many scenes rely purely on reactions and body language and Prakash Raj nails it. Often political leaders are depicted as single minded zealots, but Vengadam is more human. He understands his why wife is upset by the promise to see his daughter married in silk. He realises his daughter is in love with Ranga and goes to ask for the marriage to be arranged. He knows that when he takes a stand and strikes there will be consequences. And he knows what he is doing when he breaks the strike. Prakash Raj shows these internal struggles and questions and Vengadam’s eyes reflect his turmoil. I’m often intolerant of those who throw their families or friendships under the bus of ambition but this is more complex as Vengadam is not motivated by pure selfishness. He stole silk to weave something beautiful for his daughter, to break the cycle of not having. I could like him even as I rolled my eyes at his obsession with the sari.

Shriya Reddy is excellent  as Annam, Vengadam’s wife. Priyadarshan seems to have a knack for persuading actresses to tone down the glamour (as with Lara Dutta in Billu). Annam is smart, has opinions and politely challenges her husband in private when she thinks he has gone too far. From the initially awkward moments when Annam first comes to her new home, Shriya shows the growing affection and the playfulness in the marriage. Annam doesn’t have much dialogue so much of their closeness and the tensions in the relationship had to be conveyed through glances, the tilt of a head, the set of her shoulders.

She dies after being trampled in a crowd out to see the landlord’s new car, another symbol of the gulf between the workers and owners. Her final anguish is over whether Vengadam will be able to raise their daughter and he does his best to reassure her in his own way.

Family and village ties are revealed in many small interactions so the supporting cast are important and most are very good. I particularly like Jayakumar as Sarathy, Vengadam’s friend and one-time political ally. His rapport with Prakash Raj was excellent, and their friendship felt believably warm. I liked their stilted meeting to discuss getting their children married to each other that ended in affectionate hugs and relieved laughter. The deterioration of their relationship was shown simply but the pain on both sides and the definitive nature of the break was clear. Shammu is engaging and likeable as Vengadam’s daughter Thamarai. I do a certain amount of teeth gritting when I see little daughters made to replace their dead mothers in the home, but Thamarai was a distinct person and not just a household slave. She went to school for a while, then took sewing lessons, and her dad wanted her to be happy. So for a filmi girl in 1948 with no Ma, I thought she had it pretty good. Until things went wrong.

Kanchivaram-Bad actor lovely sariThere is an English character played by a truly bad actor. Well, I am not sure if the brightly over-enunciated yet almost expressionless dialogue delivery is his own style or was required by the director. There are so many good actors working across many Indian film industries yet the ‘English’ are almost uniformly laughable and seem to be reading at a pre-school level.  Who is casting these people?

The colour palette is simple and very effective throughout. The day to day scenes are muted and mostly use neutral and earth tones. The bus trip is drenched in the pale blues and grey of rain and twilight. Scenes at night are touched with the golden flicker of lantern flames. The flash of opulent silks highlights the gulf between the weavers and the eventual owners of those stunning garments, and punctuates the drama with bursts of saturated jewel tones. There are recurring motifs like the sickle, used as an emblem of communism and as a blade. Thiru’s camerawork uses lots of tight close ups of the actors and despite the dark interiors and low lighting in some scenes he catches every expression and gesture.

Despite the period and politics of the setting, Kanchivaram can be watched as a personal and intimate story rather than a didactic message film so I was impressed by his handling of those elements. But I’m not completely sold on the ending. The sensitivity of the characterisation and performances is what stands out for me. The film is available on YouTube with subtitles. 3 ½ stars!