Saturday, February 27, 2010 0 reflections

Movie Review: Road to Sangam

Road to Sangam:
An attempt at demystifying grass root Islam

It somehow seems like every other unconventional Hindi movie these days is aligned to either showcase Mumbai's undeniable spirit as a city that has seen the heights of mass peril or to herald a pro-Muslim message to those who might not already have heard it. Of the two, if we take a look at that rather colorful array of movies that have attempted to paint Islamic fundamentalism in a shade more palatable to the untrained layman palette, some great examples ('Aamir','Sarfarosh'), some decent instances ('Anwar','Yeh Hai Mera India','Yeh Hai Mumbai Meri Jaan') and some Herculean debacles('My name is Khan', 'Kurbaan') come to the foreground. Whilst all the aforementioned movies had varying degrees of success with portraying the life and times of an ordinary Muslim in today's India, there has never really been an attempt to juxtapose the Muslim community against Gandhi's backdrop. For that, 'Road to Sangam'(RTS) has my respect.

Now, I am not a hardcore Gandhian. I have read abundant material on the man, exhaustive literature on his legend and certainly seen a dozen variations of his mantra in recent celluloid years. Notwithstanding my personal views of the Mahatma, I was getting a tad frustrated at how almost every movie that used him as the nucleus, would invariably get so sugary at one point that one could die instantly from that lethal injection of diabetic shock. His message of global peace, non-violence and inter-communal brotherhood would be echoed way beyond the subtle reality it so desperately needed. Thus, making an erstwhile honest attempt, seem preachy and philosophical.

What makes RTS more authentic in such a stereotypical scenario is how it attempts to demystify the reasons why Maulwi saahibs and other patriarchal Muslims are screaming from atop mosque enclosures and what the everyday worker is hearing sitting in front of them, convinced that they know more about what being a true Muslim is. RTS dissects that so neatly that it takes your breathe away.

The premise revolves around Hashmatullah (Paresh Rawal), a renowned mechanic and a devout Muslim, who works out of his grease stained garage in Allahabad. He is the general secretary of his community's organization which is headed by one time friend Mohammad Ali Kasuri (Om Puri) and the local Maulwi Maulana Qureshi (Pavan Malhotra). Hashmat is a non-threatening fellow who sits in on rhetorical meetings spilling with the irate and cranky Maulwi's never ending rants about how Muslims are being targeted each day in today's India. Despite his ideology that are slightly different from that of his peers, he does not see the need to voice his philosophy in their presence. He nods his head, joins in their hymns and plays his role to the T.

And then one day a bomb goes off. A few prominent Muslims are arrested by the police and this sends shocks of rage across the community. They unanimously agree to shut down their businesses in protest of what they are convinced is a racist act. Hashmat, without a choice, reluctantly joins in not realizing that a recent project that has come his way, of fixing an age old Ford's rusty and dead engine, is in fact of the same vehicle that had once carried the Mahatma's ashes after his death in 1948. This, for a reason he cannot completely fathom, changes Hashmat's priorities.

On the one hand he does consider himself a true follower of the Koran and a blue blooded supporter of his organization. On the other, there is his conscience that continues to prick him into the confession that his little deed of helping the Mahatma's final bounty of ashes to be submerged into the Triveni Sangam (a spot where the rivers Ganga, Yamuna and Saraswati meet), somehow seems like a more justified statement of Muslim being a faith of peace, rather than shutting off work and listening to a radically inclined Mullah each day. Thus, aware of the respect he knows he needs to pay to the man who was assassinated for being an open supporter of the Muslims, Hashmat prepares to face the wrath of his own kin by reopening his shop to fix the engine. Hashmat's personal journey of awareness lit brightly by the knowledge of the true meaning of Islam culminates with the Mahatma's final journey into the rivers of the country he fought so hard to liberate.

RTS is no average emotion-heavy movie that is high on religious jingoism without a clear degree of practicality. In fact, it is the most mature movie I have seen on the subject after 'Aamir'. If 'Aamir' was the attempt to present the true anti-thesis of a Jihadi, 'Road to Sangam' paves the way for more clarity on the difference between blind fanatic adherence to one's faith and the need to see the bigger picture. That bigger, brighter, and more appropriate picture.

I would definitely recommend a relevant film like 'Road to Sangam' purely because of the honesty with which it unfolds its theme.

RATING: 4 out of 5

Saturday, February 20, 2010 0 reflections

Are Indian cities sitting ducks?

Deccan Herald published this piece hence updating it to reflect the appropriate link.

Sunday, February 14, 2010 3 reflections

[MNIK REVIEW] : My Name is Khaaan't

So after a thousand fears and a million tears Mr. Johar Jr.'s latest flick 'My Name is Khan' (MNIK), not surprisingly, opened to packed houses across the world on Friday. Being the kind who had already been pushed to the edge of desperation to try and prove my point about this being another molehill of cliches (DH Blog 'My Name is 'Clueless'), I decided to take a deep breathe and plunge into this whirlpool of what would undoubtedly be peppered with large chunks of 'glorified Joharism'. And my O my! I could not have, sadly, been more right. Something I was interestingly disappointed with.

There is no denying that this movie stays clear of some of Johar's popular stereotypical inclusions thus far– gays and humor based on them, unedited ranting by the protagonists (usually the female lead), abundant references to familial unity and previously successful SRK movies, a chatty maasi and a disturbing bouquet of song and dance rituals and so forth. Instead, it steps into more global stereotypes of the 'Umreeki' kind. If there ever was a seriously miscued pro-Muslim agenda based movie, then MNIK is it.

But lets start with the basics. Rizvan Khan (SRK with a serious hangover of Hoffman from 'Rainman' but with neither the legendary touch nor the convincing seriousness) is a man suffering from Asperger's Syndrome. (
It is curious how after 'Taare Zameen Per' almost everyone wants to herald a 'major message' by using the physically and mentally challenged as a protagonist and an unknown disorder to back it up. It disgusts me that these so called 'master story tellers' cannot narrate the same story with a person who is just a common Jack trying to meet the end of the working day. Weird.) He has a clearly secular mother (Wahab in a decent role) who has taught him that there are just either good or bad people in the world. Something, as we all know, just isn't true but then considering the already complicated personality of Rizvan, Mr. Johar decides to dumb it down to 'his level'. Tragic.

He then arrives in You-Yes-Yeah following his bizarrely irreverent brother (Jimmy Shergill in a role that never quite manages to find ground) to sell cosmetics for his company. So far, interestingly, things chug along evenly. Steady storyboard and all that. Bam! Mandira enters (Kajol in her usual indulgent self as evidenced in her groupie's directorial flicks) and things start getting 'Bollywood-ized'. The cliché rain begins. Rizvan almost instantly breaks into 'Tere Naina Tere Naina' and a few frames later asks her to marry him. She, a divorcee with apparently a seriously troubled past, gives him a mundane task (watch the film for this one) so that she may 'consider' marrying a guy she recently met. Even if I looked past the cinematic liberties here, the fact that she actually agrees to marry him raises serious questions about her character's conviction. A single mother who is just moving to a new place in a country like United States might, umm well, think twice before remarrying and that too with, ahem, a person with a clear form of autism. But not Mandira – no no – she is all for it in a blink. Heck, it is even hinted that they have sex on their first night thanks to 'Intercourse for dummies'. Made me think a lot of Indian men probably need that book too.

Now to the nucleus of this tale – 9/11 and its affects on innocent Muslims in the US. Whats that you say? That was almost a decade ago and people might find this theme a tad overused now? Well not according to Mr.J's yarn since we have random rednecks flipping off shopkeepers just because they wear a white cap, we have unnamed yanks smashing windows of desi motel owners and heck, we even have kids at school smashing that 'Paki' kid since his skin is brown. Yaaawn. How many movies have already dealt with this over the last decade? I lose count now.

And so Mr. Khan embarks on this supposedly iconic journey (much like the 'run' Hanks did in Gump which brought the entire nation to him. Remember that?) to meet the Prez and tell him – 'Mr. President. My name is Khan and I am not a terrorist.' And for what? Just because the love of his life – Mandira – told him to. I wonder what he would have done had she told him to go say 'Stop it man! You are making us all look bad!' to Osama bin Laden?

And so during this journey, Khan meets an array of people who apparently don't really have a problem that he is a muslim. The best part of the movie in terms of ridiculousness is when Khan finds himself in a church with a dozen African Americans and tells them ( (in Hindi of course, since it is the second language in all American schools and so everyone there knows it!) that Mandira's son was his 'best friend'. Not one scene existed when the kid seemed remotely interested in what was going on in either his mother's life or with stammering Khan who randomly gifts him shoes for no reason. This is where I lost all possible interest in the rest of it considering the climax became so obvious.

My instincts about this movie being a giant load of cheesy performances and over the top 'Umreeki' reactions were bang on. Not only do we have an American cast just waiting to be salvaged from their racial ignorance by an autistic Indian muslim, but he is also shown as some sort of messiah who becomes an inspiration for other Americans to help their own kind. Any ounce of credibility this story might have managed, gets vaporized at this spot when a crowd lead by his brother and sister-in-law leads a handful of Americans to aid in rescue efforts of a disaster area. The rest of the story is seriously predictable from this point on so I will let you waste your hard earned doe in experiencing this 'magic'.

What aches me most about a movie like MNIK is that Johar decides to voice each and every thought Rizvan gets in his head. This, because he once again assumes his audience are so dumb, that they cant even digest this high school essay of a story. So while we have to put up with SRK's never ending, almost annoying, portrayal of a man with a serious disorder, we also have to contend with Kajol's wide eyed histrionics that oscillate from meaninglessly irrational to just plain absurd. I look around me and find leading websites announcing this as SRK's finest till date and it hurts me. How can they possibly call this a performance that overtakes 'Swades' or 'Chak De'? Is it because this is the first movie where he plays an 'unconventional' hero with a medical condition? Puhleez. Anyone who cites this as the reason isn't qualified to be a reviewer.

Anyway. I was forced to pen my reactions on MNIK only because of the meaningless hype it had created ever since its announcement. If the audience who watches this so called 'movie about peace in Islam' that only highlights racial stereotypes calls it a successful attempt then surely it is a sad day in Indian cinema. I would prefer the movie 'Aamir' ten times more just because it was honest in its statements instead of choosing to design its script based on newspaper articles from a decade ago.

My recommendation – skip MNIK. There are much better films out there that convey the peace of Islam in more mature ways than this.

RATING: 2 out of 5 (1 star to SRK for keeping the hamming to a minimum and 1 star to Johar for spending more than 15 minutes shooting in India.)