Ab Tak Chhappan (2004)

Ab Tak Chhappan Poster

The film opens with a pile of clothes and shoes on a beach, and someone whistling “For He’s A Jolly Good Fellow”. A man is wading in the sea, maybe suicidal, maybe cleansing his sins. Or just washing off the bloodstains on a nice sunny day.

Sadhu Agashe (Nana Patekar) is an encounter specialist. He is honest and pragmatic about what that really means, and is untroubled by any ethical concerns. He is doing a necessary job as the legal system cannot stop gangsters, so extreme measures are required. The cops are basically just another gang in the Mumbai ecosystem. Within the department there are people jostling to take over his prime position. Imtiyaz (Yashpal Sharma) is a sook who wants to be the top cop but lacks Sadhu’s instincts and connections with the useful informers. Shukla (Nakul Vaid) is the wide eyed newbie, determined to deliver justice through state sanctioned murder.

Zameer (Prasad Purandare) is an offshore crimelord, running operations from his luxurious Malaysian retreat. He has a random Australian girlfriend and a strange attachment to Sadhu Agashe, who he often calls for a chat. The cat and mouse game between cop and crim is tense and disarmingly friendly by turns. New Joint Commissioner Suchak (Jeeva) has a different agenda from outgoing Mr Pradhan (Dr Mohan Agashe) and the department has to learn to navigate the new landscape. When Sadhu Agashe is put on the other side of the gun, he uses all the resources at his disposal to try to outwit his adversaries.

Nana Patekar is both ordinary and charismatic, and delivers a compelling performance that carries the film. Agashe is a public servant tasked to kill bad guys and has no obvious ethical issues with his job description. He believes he is taking care of a problem afflicting the general population, the people he swore to protect. His simplicity is deceptive, a man who acts first and stops to feel and care later. His relationship with wife Nammo (Revathi) is loving with lots of nagging and joking in a comfortable couple-y way. She is a political science teacher and yet exhibits no qualms about what her husband does, or the potential danger to herself and their son. I know they have been married for years but I still expected that when Shukla brought his fiancée Vaishali (Hrishitaa Bhatt) over for dinner that they may talk about what it meant, or at least how to get blood out of clothes. It was just such a non-thing in their lives. Revathi is elegant in a comfortable middle class way that suits Nameeta, not blingy or impractical looking. Revathi doesn’t get a lot of dialogue but her silent interactions and bustling about the home show Nammo is the cornerstone of his life. She is warm and grounded which plays well against Nana Patekar’s sharper edges. When people break the unwritten law that keeps family and dependants out of the fray, they mess with the only thing that could influence Sadhu Agashe to be moderate.

Yashpal Sharma and Kunal Vijayakar have prominent supporting roles and play the world weary seen-it-all-before cops to perfection. Justice is not their priority, hitting their targets (literally) is more important.  Nakul Vaid is suitably wide eyed as the rookie on the team. Agashe sees potential in the kid, and shares his jaded wisdom with his protégé but I wouldn’t say the boy was all that innocent to start with. Looking queasy when you shoot someone is not necessarily an indicator of moral fibre. Jeeva is threatening and oozes corruption as Suchak who disrupts the team with his new agenda. Mohan Agashe is weary and understanding as Sadhu’s old boss, the only man he really trusts and respects. Their conversations shed light on Agashe’s motivation and his view of the world, and point out the dangers if he sets a foot wrong.

Shinit Amin set his story in the non-glamorous Mumbai of films like Company and D, a dog eat dog city. Traffic is constant, everyone knows everyone else, the honour code is fairly strong. No matter what happens, gangsters and cops all stop to watch the cricket and even a hardened criminal should be entitled to a cup of tea and a lift home after he has been beaten to a pulp. There are rules. And then there are laws. The film was produced by RGV and it is like the sensible version of (the very disappointing) Department. There is an internal logic, cause and effect, nothing happens out of blind coincidence or guess work.

The background score by Salim-Suleiman is dramatic without being too obtrusive. Their soundscape helps create a sense of urgency and velocity as the protagonists travel through the hurly-burly of Mumbai.  The camera also navigates the rabbit warren of streets homes and office, giving a feeling of being a fly on the wall. Faces are often framed in close up but off centre, maybe to underscore the unknown and secret sides of human nature. Or maybe just because it looks cool. There is a lot going on in the background and periphery as people go about their work and daily business. It’s a lively yet very contained filmi world.

There is a lot of violence and death in the film, but it is almost understated. The characters hardly notice the carnage, so nor did I. I was more interested in the why than the what. And the implication of the corruption of the system and the internecine conflicts was far more frightening than a shooting.

This is a solid film with a well thought out plot and excellent performances. It’s not uplifting but neither is it completely depressing. It is a different way of looking at that filmi chestnut – where do you look for justice? And does doing something bad to prevent something potentially worse ever work out? 4 stars!

Frozen (2007)

Frozen-title

Shivajee Chandrabushan’s Frozen is a lyrical and often dreamlike film. Shot on location in Ladakh and released in black and white, it’s a story told as much through the stunning visuals as through the slightly clunky screenplay. I’ll state upfront I don’t have much of a view on the political background, and I am sure a homegrown audience would have a deeper understanding that would colour their viewing. I found the film satisfying on face value as a story about family, the effects of change, and the challenge to maintain integrity.

Karma (Danny Denzongpa) is an apricot jam maker, a widower living with his family in their ancestral home near Leh. He knows he has to try and keep up with the times, but that is easier said than done. He bought a machine to speed up his jam production but it doesn’t run reliably. He has mounting debts as his business deteriorates, loans cannot be repaid on time, and the interest is crippling. His daughter Lasya (Gauri) is wilful and an attention seeker, while Chomo (Aungchuk) is her little shadow. The siblings spend their days playing with their dog Singhe, running around in the woods, or going to visit their mother’s memorial, high on a neighbouring hillside. Lasya is growing up and Karma knows he should settle her marriage before all his debts are called in, but he resists taking any action, hoping he can keep providing for her. One day the army arrives on his doorstep to set up a camp. Their peaceful valley is suddenly full of trucks and electric lights, threats of violence by ‘the enemy’, and his land is no longer worth anything.

The pace, and price, of change is evident. The crowd at a festival is dotted with camera wielding tourists in Gore-Tex, hideous denim replaces the traditional woollen clothing, and motorbikes replace ponies. The army officers talk about the enemy and how the valley is no longer safe, but Karma only sees the place he grew up. His land is now covered in barbed wire, the silence broken by constant truck traffic. The officers also complain about how all the food in the market is being bought by ‘them’ to cause shortages, a sad situation for the jam maker who cannot sell his wares.

Danny Denzongpa is just wonderful. He doesn’t have much dialogue and manages to convey so much through Karma’s expressions, his pauses before responding, and his stillness. Karma’s Buddhist philosophy is the foundation of his character. He uses every challenge as a means of practising what he believes in, and his integrity is as substantial and present as the mountains.  When Karma realises loan shark Dawa is proposing to trade Lasya in return for more money, there is a long beat before he meekly nods. Danny shows his revulsion, anger and resignation all in a flicker of expression, with no sign of any 70s masala filminess or his more recent villainous styling.  I’m always happy to see Danny rock up in any film, and I particularly enjoyed this very gently shaded characterisation.

Gauri is pretty and lively, and gives Lasya a case of chronic resting bitch face which suits the character perfectly. She is starting to want more than her life in the remote homestead but it is clear she loves her father and her little brother. The local Romeo, who is actually called Romeo, (Shakeel Khan) takes a fancy to her. While she likes his attention she seems to like the opportunities to explore the world that come along with a boyfriend with a motorbike more than she likes the boy. Lasya is a typical teenager in a not so typical setting. Her energy sometimes manifests as anger, even when she doesn’t really know why. Karma does his best to teach her to guard her mind, to understand how to address her fears.

Little Chomo is the typical baby brother. He follows his big sister and lets her both bully and make a pet of him. Aungchuk doesn’t have to say a lot but he has an expressive face and droll comic timing. He is a loner, only ever hanging out with his sister or silently tagging along after his dad. I wondered about why he seemed to be on the periphery all the time and how he felt about his isolation, and liked the way his story unfolded.

Sita (Anuradha Baral) helps Karma run his house and feed his kids. She is obviously very fond of them and does her best to keep things running. Salim (Sanjay Swaraj) is in the same boat as Karma, with maxed out loans and little prospect of getting back on his feet. Colonel Shyam (Aamir Bashir) and the Rinpoche (Sonam Stobgias Gorky) are different kinds of influences in Karma’s life. The bad side of modernisation is represented by the parasitical loan sharks; sleazy Dawa (Rajendranath Zutshi) and sweary Sharma (Yashpal Sharma).

Karma and Lasya interact with lots of people but I wouldn’t say they were very close with anyone other than Sita. On a rare day out, Lasya explores a fair and it is great fun to see what she sees, and check out the crowds and entertainment, even a glimpse of the cham dancers from Thiksey Gompa. One day I’ll get there myself!

The film sometimes feels a little disjointed as it is more a series of vignettes and images, ranging from realism to more fanciful compositions. That adds to the dreamy nature as scenes shift and the focus moves from character to character. I read somewhere that Shivajee Chandrabhushan is a climber, and he certainly captured the things I love about the mountains. The landscape is both exhilarating and confining, and the vast skies and stark light often have an otherworldly effect. The environmental upheaval mirrors the turmoil in Karma’s life, and the changing seasons are a reminder of how little time he may have to protect his family. The epilogue was a bit tricksy after such a sincere story, and I would have been just as happy for the film to end without the final scene. Having said that, I liked that I was left with questions and possibilities and not just a plot tied up with a bow.

This is a film for a contemplative evening, when you can just immerse yourself in the flow of images and see where it takes you. And a rewarding film for the Danny Denzongpa fans. 4 stars!