Vanaprastham (1999)

Vanaprastham

When I asked for recommendations for Mohanlal films some time ago, Vanaprastham was mentioned a number of times, and now I understand why so many people suggested it.  I think this is the best performance by Mohanlal I’ve seen, and it has whetted my appetite for more of his films.  Although Vanaprastham is a simple story about a Kathakali performer set in the middle of the last century, Mohanlal’s performance brings depth and intensity to the role and he is mesmerising.  Presumably due to the fifties era, there is plenty of repressed emotion and the reliance of the Kathakali performer on facial movement transfers directly as Kunhikuttan (Mohanlal) doesn’t say much but rather lets his expressions and in particular his eyes,  speak for him.  It’s a sad film, but it’s beautifully shot with gorgeous costumes and, as ever in Malayalam cinema, stunning cinematography.  Like the previous Shaji Karun directed film I watched (Kutty Srank), there is much about the story that is untold and left to the imagination, although the drama does proceed more linearly here.  Just in case anyone needs any more motivation to watch, Vanaprastham (aka The Last dance or Pilgrimage) screened in the Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes film festival when it was released in 1999, and won accolades at other international festivals as well as a number of National awards.

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Kunhikuttan is introduced by a series of brief images interspersed between the opening credits which suggest that he is a lazy man who drinks, is looked after by his mother, disliked by his wife and adored by his daughter who is desperately trying to get his attention. And while that does sum him up on a purely superficial level, there is much more to Kunhikuttan.  A flashback shows his acceptance into dance classes as a child in the thirties, and reveals that he has never had any contact with his nobleman father.  This is a loss which he feels throughout his life and it appears to at least partly explain some of his reactions to subsequent events.  There is a lovely connection here between the scenes of the dance school with Kunhikuttan as a child and then again as an adult, where the same background of the temple elephants being dressed in their finery is unchanged despite the changes in Kunhikuttan. I also love the young Kunhikuttan’s expressions as he dances, particularly compared to the more rigid faces of the other boys.

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Kunhikuttan has an unhappy arranged marriage and his wife Savithri (Kukku Parameswaran) seems to despise him and his performance career.  Her antipathy towards her husband is one of the ’things that are never explained’, and there didn’t appear to be any obvious reason behind her animosity. Kunhikuttan’s daughter on the other hand adores him, and she is the one bright spot in his life outside of his stage performances.

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At the start of the film, Kunhikuttan has just reached the point in his career where he is able to play male roles, and he takes on the part of Arjuna in a performance which is seen by the niece of the Diwan, Subhadra (Suhasini).  Her character is at first only glimpsed as a hand at the window of the women’s viewing area, and this seems to be a foretelling that she is a private and somewhat hidden persona. Although one with excellent taste in jewellery.

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Subhadra is always alone and lives in a large house with only two elderly servants for company. She is mainly depicted as always writing, sometimes even during the performances, and she seems a rather pitiable character who is lost in her own dreams and fills her days with illusions.  She falls in love with Kunhikuttan but it is immediately apparent that she is obsessed with Arjuna the character rather than Kunhikuttan the man.  All her writing is put to good effect though as she writes a version of the Arjuna/ Subhadra story which she persuades Kunhikuttan to perform.

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Subhadra’s obsession is clear in the scene after the two have made love.  Subhadra seems to revel in the smears of make-up on her face and looks ecstatic, while Kunhikuttan sneaks out of the room, guiltily carrying his costume and immediately goes to bathe.

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Subhadra has no time for Kunhikuttan the man and when she has his child she allows him to meet his son briefly and then explains that she will have nothing more to do with him.  Kunhikuttan yearns to be with his son, particularly since he never knew his own father, but he is denied the opportunity to be a part of his son’s life. This is just one more pain for Kunhikuttan to deal with, along with his continual poverty, his unhappy home life and the looming illness of his friend.

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Mohanlal expresses his emotions perfectly, showing restraint and sincerity throughout.  His easy camaraderie with his fellow performers, his obsession with his son and the deteriorating relationship with his wife are all brought clearly to life.  Suhasini is also excellent as Subhadra and is particularly good in her scenes with Mohanlal when she is obsessing about Arjuna.  At times the film does get a little confusing, and the occasionally obtuse nature of the subtitles in my DVD copy didn’t help.  Kunhikuttan’s friend who is one of the singers is called Namboothiri, but I think that Kunhikuttan also uses this term (which I believe means Lord) to refer to his father.  Kunhikuttan goes to Kasi to perform rituals which I thought were for his friend, but later seemed to be for his father.  The ageing effect is also not terribly obvious, and it is only because Kunhikuttan’s daughter grows up that I was able to work out a significant amount of time had passed.

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The cinematography by Santosh Sivan and Renato Berta is simply stunning.  The natural world is cleverly contrasted with the artificial world of performing and every image is full of detail.  The art-form of Kathakali is showcased with beautiful images of the performances as well as glimpses into backstage life.  It’s a visual feast and at times I needed to rewind to fully grasp the action as I was distracted from reading the subtitles by the quality of the imagery.

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I was impressed by Mohanlal’s dancing, particularly since he isn’t a classically trained dancer and yet as far as I could tell, he held his own against the professional dancers in the cast.  I found it surprising that the dancers were all living in poverty despite the apparent recognition of their skills and I wonder if this is still the case to-day.  The costumes certainly all look expensive and they must go through truckloads of make up for each performance too!

Vanaprastham is full of symbolism, from the title referring to the stage of life where spiritual concerns take over from the day-to-day responsibilities, to the parallels between the story of Arjuna and Kunhikuttan’s life and I’m sure that there are many more details I missed. The performances are excellent, the background music by Zakir Hussain blends with the traditional songs and the story which seems so simple initially has plenty of complexity and depth.  It’s an absolute must watch and I thoroughly recommend it! A full 5 stars.

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Sarkar

I held out on watching Sarkar til a couple of years ago. I’m ambivalent about Ram Gopal Varma films. When he is good, he is terrific. But he has wasted some interesting ideas and great actors in projects that seem to be more about RGV than making a film (like RGV ki Aag, and that film all about Mahie Gill’s cleavage). I’m also on the fence about Amitabh Bachchan in this late career phase. He’s made some bad film choices (like Boom!) and not always acted to his ability. But Sarkar combines a focussed and controlled RGV with a complex performance from Amitabh and the result is a dark and gripping film.

Subhash Nagre (Amitabh) is an old school mafia lord. He believes in family, honour and loyalty. He isn’t painted as really good or sympathetic but he has a certain integrity, an old fashioned set of rules that he adheres to and that he upholds. Nagre is connected to his community and neighbourhood, and thinks of the social cost as well as the profit and loss numbers. His people worship him, gathering outside his mansion to catch a glimpse of their Sarkar. They come to him when the system fails them, and he is their justice. Amitabh looks picture perfect. He creates a focal point in every scene with his stillness and his gaze. I found I was almost hypnotised by him, drawn to watching Subhash’s reactions no matter what else was happening. There is a carefully controlled rage in some scenes that is far more unnerving than any histrionics would have been.

While Subhash acknowledges that he operates outside the law, he says ‘I do what is right for the people’. When people come to him asking for solutions, he accepts their obeisance with little expression. He makes a semblance of not wanting people to touch his feet etc but I wondered what would happen to anyone who dared not to. Some scenes are accompanied by a religious chant(Govinda Govinda featuring Amitabh’s vocals) showing the deification of Sarkar. There are glimpses of the monstrous ego behind the facade, the steely will that does not tolerate opposition or failure, and the carefully checked anger. We also see the family man and affectionate grandfather. Subhash Nagre is a complex man and he is a master strategist. Amitabh shows all of these nuances without being too actorly and I was watching the character, not the performance.

Subhash Nagre is challenged from within and without his family. Rashid (Zakir Hussain) is the new type of criminal. His decisions are all commercial and he has no empathy or reserve. He is not the kind of man Subhash is used to. There is no whitewashing of how Nagre makes his money, but the clashes hinge on honour and intent. He will not budge from his principles. His enemies know that to remove the man they must first destroy his reputation.

Son Shankar (Abhishek Bachchan) returns from the US. Baby B has a role where doing an impression of his dad is actually appropriate. Initially believing that his father simply helps others, his eyes are opened to the realities of the family business. In a conversation with Pooja (Katrina Kaif) they refer to the Sarkar empire as a parallel government, supporting the people and doing what is right, not just what is legal. Shankar is appalled at how his father is portrayed in the media. He is the golden boy, the one his father wanted to keep clean and safe from the business. The focus and decision making Shankar used in his corporate life are now applied to his family concerns. He is a quick learner and he will do what it takes.

Abhishek is not completely convincing but he does structure his performance well. Initially Shankar is relaxed and engaging and his body language is more open. As he is drawn more into the threats to his dad, he assumes more of Subhash’s mannerisms and strategies. Abhishek’s face becomes less expressive, he speaks more slowly and moves more deliberately. And he is ice cold, like his father.

Vishnu (Kay Kay Menon) is the son most like his father in ambition, but lacking focus and self control. The tension in father-son relationship is well depicted as Vishnu challenges his father’s authority and decision making. The dynamic between Shankar and Vishnu is also fraught as Vishnu desperately wants to be taken seriously, to be the next Sarkar. Quick to flare up or retaliate he has no ‘off’ switch and only intermittent self awareness.

The pain of rejection drives him, and makes him vulnerable to manipulation. Vishnu is co-opted by his father’s enemies, and spirals into confusion, hate, anger and regret. He is an oddly sympathetic character despite committing some of the most heinous acts. I think that is due to the complex and changing emotions Kay Kay invests him with. Kay Kay is expressive and emotional where Amitabh is smouldering control.

The Nagre mansion is a world away from the glaring light and sound of the streets. It is almost timeless, and full of shadows and silhouettes. All around there are men at arms working out and waiting for trouble. The family live in a small pocket of domesticity within the encampment. It’s a bit claustrophobic, but also serene and sometimes beautiful. It is the price Nagre pays as he needs to be safe but accessible to the people who give him his status.

All around Mumbai there are shadowy figures in dark room havings meetings and plotting Subhash’s downfall. The story is well written by Manish Gupta, and gains in intensity as more deceptions unfold. Kota Srinivasa Rao is the repulsive Selvaramani, chortling his way through schemes and double crosses. His idea of honouring a friendship is requesting a quick death for someone. Anupam Kher has a small role as an anti-corruption politician and still manages to try and upstage everyone with a hammy death scene. Raju Mavani as Vishram Bhagat is the everyman type of villain – he seems perfectly reasonable yet he is calculating and meticulous in scheming to dethrone Nagre. Telugu actor Jeeva as Swami is less successful. His mannerisms and dialogue delivery are hammy, and while I believed he was a serious threat his wig didn’t convince me at all.

Supriya Pathak delivers a good performance as the mother watching her son go off the rails and placing her family in deadly jeopardy. Tanisha is likeable as Avantika, the foster daughter who is in love with Shankar. Katrina Kaif is not entirely terrible as Shankar’s American based girlfriend Pooja. But the women in Sarkar are background – providing all the support systems and needs for the menfolk, but not often in the spotlight. These relationships are important, and there is a lot of affection between family members but the men take care of business while the women take care of the men.

The visual design and camerawork throughout Sarkar is excellent and reinforces the drama and emotion. The majority of the film is shot in tight close ups, making the characters the focal point. When things move out into a broader shot, the background detail and bustle of extras and locations gives a strong real world flavour. Amar Mohile’s music is dramatic but not intrusive and the sound effects and orchestration are very effective.

It’s a fairly grim movie. There are lots of unlikeable characters and they do some despicable things. But it is such an accomplished film and just drags me in to that world. Every time I see it Amitabh reminds me yet again of why he is such a legend. Sarkar Raj was a worthy sequel, and builds on Sarkar very well. I’m cautiously looking forward to Department to see if RGV and the Big B can do it again in a different story. 4 stars.

Heather says: This isn’t one of my favourite Amitabh films despite the fact that I think he plays the part of the aging gangster well.  I think the problem is that the story of the film doesn’t engage my interest until near the end and I just don’t care enough about any of the characters to want to know what happens to them. However it does have some good points and the end is almost worth sitting through the preceding hour and a half. I do like how cold and clinical Amitabh appears and that his ruthless Don does have a more compassionate side. However that’s not enough to make me like him and since he’s not a malicious criminal either I don’t find him very interesting to watch.  His son Vishnu is more engaging and Kay Kay Menon’s performance is good enough to make me feel at least some aversion for his sleazy character, but Abishek as Shankar is incredibly wooden and quite tedious throughout. The most enjoyable scenes in the film for me are those with Selvar Mani and Virendra Swami, partly because Kota Srinivaso Rao and Jeeva both put in a very good performances and because those two characters do have some personality. The rest of the cast are all fine, and in fact many of the support actors draw my attention much more than the main leads. However I have no idea why Katrina Kaif bothered to turn up as she may as well not have been there for all the impact her character had on the story. I thought her role was fairly pointless and much better reasons could have been used for Shankar’s initial reluctance to help his father.

There are a lot of meaningful pauses and significant looks throughout the film which make it even slower. I was distracted looking at the set dressing (which was excellent!) and when there was dialogue found that I was concentrating on understanding the Hindi and trying not to look at the subtitles, rather than watching the action. The film itself is well shot and the general idea of the story is interesting, but the characters are so lacking in any type of appeal that it never really connects.  It’s not even that I found them dislikeable, they were just rather dull.  I give Sarkar 3 stars, mainly for the ending and a convincing if uninspiring performance from Amitabh.

Shor In The City

Shor in the City didn’t get a cinematic release in Melbourne, which was very disappointing to those of us who had been following updates on twitter. Good reviews, an interesting cast line up and compelling trailer meant that I got the DVD as soon as it was released, and watched it almost straight away. It’s a film that would look great on the big screen, with some beautiful shots of Mumbai and the Ganesh Chaturthi celebrations, but the storyline and excellent performances make it a very worthwhile DVD watch as well.

The film takes place over  Ganesh Chaturthi  and follows three stories which are not interlinked, although there is one character who is involved in all three. Interestingly the opening credits state that all the events in the film are inspired from newspaper articles, which at times made me wonder exactly what does get reported in Mumbai. It’s a slice of life in the city and seems to be a very realistic serving.

The first story centre around Tilak (Tusshar Kapoor) and his two friends Ramesh (Nikhil Dwivedi) and Mandook (Pitobash). While Tilak runs a business illegally copying and publishing books to sell at traffic intersections, his two friends seem to be mainly engaged in petty theft and other small crime. Tilak is also recently married and the relationship with his new wife Sapna is one of the standouts of the film. Their initial awkwardness around each other and the slow development of their relationship is very well portrayed. I would have to say that this is probably the best performance by Tusshar Kapoor that I have seen – I can’t remember much about him in other films, but he really impressed me here. Radhika Apte is excellent as Sapna and the chemistry between the two is develops realistically as their relationship evolves. This is the second time I’ve seen Radhika Apte (she was in Onir’s excellent I Am) and she shows her versatility here with a completely different but equally compelling performance.

 

 

 

 

The film follows the lives of the three friends as they kidnap a writer to steal his latest manuscript, try to get rid of some guns and a bomb that they have stolen and finally get involved in a bank robbery. Nikhil Dwivedi is totally crazy as Mandook and while he portrays the type of person that you would hope never to meet in real life, on-screen he is funny and infuriating in equal measures. Ramesh is somewhat overshadowed by the force that is Mandook, but the relationship between the three feels very natural and true to life. Whether it is riding around on a motorbike taking surreptitious pictures of girls or hanging out in a bar taking pictures of themselves writer/ directors Raj Nidimoru, Krishna D K and writer Sita Menon really seem to have got these three right.

 

 

 

 

The second story revolves around Abhay, an NRI from the USA who has come to Mumbai to set up a small business. His shock and incredulousness at the number and extent of the bribes he has to pay is understandable, but things take a much darker turn when a couple of extortionists – Premal (Zakir Hussain) and his boss Hemraj (Suresh Dubey) – turn up demanding he pay protection money. They threaten him and his new model girlfriend Sharmili (Preeti Desai) and his helplessness is compounded when he cannot get the answers he wants from the police. Sendhil Ramamurthy looks out of place enough to be perfect for this role. He is an American actor who has appeared in a number of TV shows, but I hadn’t ever seen him before so he fitted the part well for me. His attempts at Hindi before lapsing back into frustrated English are just brilliant and remind me so much of my attempts to communicate in India! The last part of his story is a little less believable but it’s still an engrossing watch.

 

 

 

 

I liked the contrasts in Abhay’s story. Firstly the contrast  between his work life; trying to set up a business, dealing with IT issues, dealing with his employees and the extortionists and then his more Western style life clubbing and shopping with his girlfriend. Again the story is very realistic and there is a moment where Sharmili spots a poster of herself and her reaction of – look there’s me! – is spot on. Then the contrasts between the noise of Ganesh Visarjan and the quiet of Abhay’s apartment, and of his initial excitement at being in Mumbai gradually changing as the realities of his situation kick in. But what really impressed me here was a scene where Abhay’s employee speaks to his wife on the phone about eating dinner with his boss just before Hemraj walks in. The detail about his phone conversation makes his employee a very real person and the distain with which he is subsequently treated serves to accentuate the viciousness of the extortionists. This attention to small details occurs throughout the film and I think this is why it feels true to life and works on a number of different levels.

 

 

 

 

The final story involves Sawan, a talented cricketer who is trying out for the under 22 team. He quickly realises that skill and talent are only going to get him so far, and that to get into the team he will need to bribe the selector. But he doesn’t have the kind of money it takes, and to add to his troubles his girlfriend Sejal (Girija Oak) is being pressured into a marriage by her family and is constantly asking for his help. The scenes between Sawan and Sejal again feel very realistic and their situation a common one. Judging by the number of couples in this scene at any rate!

 

 

 

 

I was very keen to see Sundeep Kishan here since he was excellent in his Telugu debut Prasthanam, and I wasn’t disappointed.   Sundeep is totally believable as Sawan and perfectly fits the role of the aspiring cricketer who knows enough about life to understand the selection bribery, but still wants to believe that the game is above such taints. At one point he says to his friend, ‘Have I been speaking in Telugu?’ which my subtitles rather strangely translate as, ‘What have I been saying all this time?’, but it did make me smile.  I liked the way he practices his game on the roof using a mirror and the natural rapport he has with his sister when she asks him to look after his nephew. His solution to his money crisis is rather drastic, but his attempts to deal with Sejal are the responses I can imagine any young man in his situation making and it’s all very believable.

Sawan’s friend Tipu is the one character who appears in all three threads of the film. He’s a ‘fixer’ who is responsible for organising crowds for demonstrations and riots, buying and selling of various commodities and many other illegal activities. Amit Mistry plays the role with plenty of humour and has a diverse collection of shirts.

The cinematography is excellent and Mumbai itself becomes another character in the film. We see a number of different sides to the city with shots from above and across the water as well as the loud and exuberant street scenes of the Ganesh Chaturthi festival. The festival acts as an underlying beat and the crowds and noise press heavier and heavier as the film progresses.

 

 

 

 

The music is also excellent and fits well into the narrative. The opening number is suitably loud and brash, and Saibo is a beautifully sweet.  There are no big song and dance scenes which really weren’t necessary here and in fact would have totally derailed the story. The lack of an item number in the night club scene is very appreciatively noted!

The film is a great look at a slice of Mumbai life and the writers are to be congratulated on taking a number of stories and making them all work together so well. Each of the actors seems to fit their character and it’s one of those films where I keep noticing more and more clever detail on repeated viewing. The end is less successful in some respects although the final resolutions over the end credits are brilliant. Watch for some great performances, clever story writing and to find out why karma really is a bitch. 4 ½ stars.

Temple says:

Shor In The City isn’t totally successful in my book, but it is a lot to ask that all the stories succeed equally- and they don’t. Most of the let down is in Sendhil Ramamurthy’s storyline. It’s just too pat. He is the perfect NRI having the perfectly frustrating and confronting return to India, meets the perfect model girlfriend on arrival, lives in the perfect apartment with the perfect luxe lifestyle, suffers the perfect stereotypical rip-off and commits the perfect crime in payback. For me, it lacks the subtlety and emotional hook of the other characters’ stories, and I just didn’t buy it completely. I have to confess, I think he is very decorative but a pretty ordinary actor. I sat through the truly awful “It’s A Wonderful Afterlife” which is a very unfunny ‘comedy’ in which Sendhil played one of the leads so I was predisposed to feeling a tad jaundiced. But I think his character and performance also suffer in the comparison to the other two guys. Sundeep Kishan is perfect casting as Sawan with his mix of confidence and self doubt that made him choose unwisely at times. Sundeep seems very natural and his timing and rapport with the other actors feels really spontaneous. I was amazed by Tusshar Kapoor who was sweet and awkward and fun as Tilak. I’d never rated him much as an actor but this was a really moving performance in a role that has great range but also needs a lot of restraint. His scenes with his brand new wife were beautifully judged, and his excitement about books and reading (baffling to his sidekicks) was totally endearing. I liked the way Sawan and Tilak provided a nice contrast and tension with the good boy maybe going bad, and the bad boy who decides to change directions.

It’s a very pleasing film on a visual level and does convey the manic bustle and also the quiet reflective corners of Mumbai. The use of locations was great and it added a buzz to the scenes out in the streets, as well as the intimate domesticity up on rooftops and balconies as characters looked out on the sprawling city. Ganesh imagery is everywhere, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Tilak is able to move on after catching the benign gaze of the god who removes obstacles. It’s a fast paced film that looks and sounds great. The writing is good, and the story is rarely dull. There is a little too much coincidence and some heavy handed visuals but overall I like it a lot.  3/12 stars.