Sunday, June 20, 2010 20 reflections

Raavan : A movie review

Ever since Subhash Ghai’s ‘Khalnayak’, there has been much said about the villain in a story. Notwithstanding the painfully obvious hint in such titles of apparent glorification of the stereotypical ‘villain’ of a tale just waiting to be exaggerated, there are, I have always believed, more creative ways to narrate a story which mixes up the definitions of a hero and his nemesis. Ways so beautifully meshed with the complicated lives of simple humans, that the glow in which they glisten is always a grand tribute to their creator – the director. Such a genius he has been, this down to earth South Indian man called Mani Ratnam. Hidden in his unassuming mannerisms and genuine smiles was this awe inspiring vein of realism that consistently struck a chord with us lesser mortals. Be it in the poetic renditions of Iruvar where friendship and love are held as beautiful hostages in a cage of brilliant screenplay. Be it in the looming silences of Nayagan where a self declared Godfather’s eyes moisten at hearing his estranged grandchild’s voice for the first time. Or be it in the innocence of a little girl’s subtle yet helpless rage on being reunited with her long lost, now militia, mother in Kannathil Muthamittal. Yes – Mani’s genius was never in the mindless cacophony that has ruled the roost in Indian cinema. His craft was in using his keen eye for detail and pecking out those few but memorable moments where life’s complexities get refreshingly redefined each time.

With such an impressive record to back him up, I began viewing ‘Raavan’ hoping that despite his mixed track record with making Hindi films he would still pull out a masterful trick from his seasoned hat. Alas, I was woefully wrong.

What doesn’t work for ‘Raavan’ is the nonsensical title. Considering the posters are plastered with faces of Abhishek Bachchan as ‘Raavan’, it takes no imagination to connect the rest of the dots in this mixed tale of the painfully obvious. Every kid in India is taught the story of the epic Ramayana before being potty trained so to attempt such an old wives’ tale in itself highlights Mani’s lack of a clear vision with this movie. And so, not surprisingly, we have almost everyone labeling it, rather crudely, as the ‘modern Ramayana’. What makes it worse is Mani’s pathetic attempts at playing to the galleries by smearing the story with laughable mentions to characters from the epic. Govinda jumping from one tree to another. Hmm. I wonder who he is! Priyamani is dragged by the nose to the police station by the hero’s junior police official. Wow – who could she (and he!) be playing! Villain’s brother comes to hero’s den to offer an olive branch. You see where I am going with this. It is in such cliché that Mani suddenly seems like just another director going through a bizarre mid-life crisis. A crisis so intense, that he doesn’t even attempt to make the proceedings a tad more original. Utterly and absolutely shameful.

What makes ‘Raavan’ more painful to watch are the performances. It was as if each character was given a collection of 1-3 expressions and told to keep repeating it throughout the movie. Vikram (yes, as Rama) has one standard scowl from frame 1 to n. Aishwarya’s only job is to stare with reddened eyes and scream like an animal when needed. And Abhishek? He is given the same license to ham as Shah Rukh was given in ‘Raam Jaane’. He seems more like a person with a serious anger management issue and a psychological disorder rather than a nemesis who has the wit and the gut to challenge the hero with something more creative than kidnapping his wife. Mani sir – come on! ‘Raavan’, thanks to such self indulgent caricatures and a lousy storyline successfully converts a brilliant pool of opportunities into a messy pit of over hyped mediocrity. Tragic.

There is enough mention about the brilliant cinematography which, I must admit, is possibly the only high point of the movie although I cant say I saw anything that made me hold my breathe. Music? Let’s just say Rahman shouldn’t have received an Oscar for what is arguably a very ordinary song at best. It seems like he has let that success, while earnestly pretending to still be the ‘musician next door’, go not only to his head but also to his ears. Nothing else can explain the noise and shrieks in an alien tongue he decided to call music for this overwhelmingly boring feature. Maybe its time Mani sir goes back to working with the true maestro Illayaraja and dumps this over marketed boy wonder who seems to be losing his exaggerated finesse rapidly.

I remember reading a comment somewhere on one of the forums that a more practical movie on highlighting the true shades of a stereotyped villain would be to portray Gandhi as a crafty Gujarati lawyer working as an agent for the British while a true patriot, Ghodse, takes on the entire country to fight a cause he is convinced is the truth. I, for one, would certainly pay to see that movie. It is indeed a shame that Mani could not see such blatantly obvious rationale before manufacturing this dish called ‘Raavan’ that eventually reached our ill-fated noses and eyes. But as Mani has always said through his movies – it is all about hope. Hope in humanity and more importantly, hope with oneself. And in that same spirit, here’s hoping that we get back the real Mani Ratnam with his next venture.

Go on, Mani Ratnam sir. We eagerly await yet again.

Saturday, June 12, 2010 2 reflections

Picture imperfect

Perspective is one of those rare things that only gets better with age. From the raw seeds that it splits into two from, it grows with time into this giant colossus of a tree with, hopefully, a lot of juicy fruits hanging from its various weather beaten branches. With every drought and every rain, one can only hope that the tree of perspective matures, gets stronger and penetrates its roots deeper into the soil of our psyche.

The reason my mind drifted to such random thoughts, was because a friend shared a photograph of a scenic landscape on Twitter and expressed her wish to live there forever, if she could. Now, as much as I do not doubt her intentions one atom, I started thinking of my own hopes of a similar nature from not so long ago. I thought of that familiar feel of being able to just detoxify and detach myself from the tech-heavy, news-heavy and mostly, boredom-heavy life of excruciating mediocrity I sometimes find myself in. I still preserve wonderful memories of those few times I was able to get away from the hubbub and din of the city’s megalomaniacal tentacles into the silent greens connecting two concrete jungles. My mind is still afresh with inspirational images of babbling brooks rippling away in shady wilderness, almost mocking the superficial existence I lead in what is defined as ‘the good life’. On my week long trip to a speck of a place called Lakkavalli, about an hour’s drive from the city of Shimoga, I still remember feeling like a moronic foreigner as I gawked in wonder at the small tea shop that stood lazily on the edge of a breathe taking gorge overlooking what was known as the Rajah seat – ‘the seat of a King’. I recall walking through the noisy markets in the evenings that were filled with the ever shifting fragrances of a dozen flowers – primarily jasmine. I remember looking at the simple folk there – the friendly cobbler, the affectionate pan wallah, the local priest who knew everyone and whom everybody knew – all characters from a quintessential Malgudi day. Yes, I remember saying to myself then, I can totally live here. This is it.

On the fourth day of my visit to the aforementioned paradisiacal delight, I, for no particular reason, started missing the Internet. The yearning to click on random websites and continuously check if any of my online friends were around to chat began to grow. I found myself being plagued with this nagging feeling that the same gorge, the same market, the same tea shop and the same aromatic essences – now seemed a tad jaded. They all now seemed – boring. People were too laid back, too simple for my taste. There was no traffic to fend off or no honking to put up with. The evenings were filled with the annoying cacophony of crickets and other unidentifiable bugs instead. The buzz of the mosquitoes at dusk drove me crazy with itches all over and self assigned slaps across my cheeks. The silence of the valley after dark was plain torture. My need for that undecipherable variable grew with each passing hour. I needed, most than anything else, that wide open space of an absolute void. Yes – that addictive nature of a city’s throbbing mendacity was aching to rush back into my now healthier veins and lungs. I had to get back to my toxins. And so – after just six days in Lakkavalli – I took the first bus out of there. The moment I coughed from the unholy smoke of an ill mannered passerby at Bangalore’s central bus station – I knew I was home. Ah, bliss, here I am.

Maybe this is the way it is, I wonder. For folks like me. City-bred addicts who can certainly appreciate and love a natural setting like any other sane human, but only if it came with an expiration date. Metroholics who love that clean feel of being an innocent child playing in Mother Nature’s welcoming bosom as long as we are not fed too much of her milk. We need our poison too. We need the vile that is served at our over-greased snack stalls in the name of taste bud amplifiers and fashion statements. Yes, we need our sickness back.

I truly wonder if that perfect picture of life we crave for is actually defined in its imperfection. The moment it gets too askew, we find an obvious distraction. And once that gets a tad cloudy, we find a way to weasel our way back into our personal hells. The next time I am in Lakkavalli (whenever that is!) I hope I can track down that tea-shop wallah atop that gorge overlooking the King’s seat and ask him this. Maybe then there will be some clarity in this bizarre definition of perfection I have lead thus far.

Hmm…I now wonder how I’d frame that question though…

Saturday, June 05, 2010 4 reflections

First homecomings

The summer of 2001 is a period in my life I will never forget. Having woven together tediously elaborate fantasies of life overseas, I had, after a rather lucky sequence of events, finally managed to spend my first year abroad. It had been a weird experience for me after I had landed in Bangalore after a 20 hour journey all the way from South America. My parents, red with pride and affection, my close buddies (and the then girlfriend of one of them) and a relative – all of them had descended at the good old HAL airport to greet my blessed self back into the house. A giant bouquet was presented to me as my brother excitedly offered to pull my luggage trolley for me. I remember feeling so weird shaking hands with my friends in such a formal manner after so many years of friendship but it just seemed like the right thing to do somehow! They stretched out their hand with a grin; I accepted it with a smile and shook it. It was all so surreal. The scent of the trees, the hint of rain in the breeze, the din of the morning traffic and the cacophony of voices and faces. Ah – it was as if I had landed in a place I had left eons ago.

The weeks that followed had been equally interesting. After a couple of days of pampering, everyone had gotten busy with their lives. My friends went back to their planets of girlfriends and bosses. My brother went back to his world of books and boredom. My mother went back to her kitchen and maid-related issues while dad – well, he just returned to his newspaper. All that was left was me – walking around the garden and looking at life hazily puff by on the street. A random banana wallah here, a carefree newspaper wallah there. It seemed like life had returned to normalcy after the slight disruption of a couple of days. I – as I then painfully realized – had been that disruption. A momentary distraction. A passerby with a bag of tricks. Now that the brief period of curiosity was done with, they could move on.

It has been almost a decade since that summer. Over time, I have learnt several things the easy way and most things the hard way. One among those various tracks of experiences is the fact that when one chooses to be an NRI, one chooses to be an eternal guest in his/her home thereafter. All connections that are generic – of friendship, of love, of affection and such – remain intact but the vein that connects a person to the daily grind of things, inadvertently, is lost. My folks had gotten used to living without me so if anything my opinion on the daily transactions would always be seen as an invalid one. And it was true too! I didn’t live there, so I didn’t know it. Simple. Every whine, crib and complaint I’d have would be seen with ridicule since it was obvious that this ‘ordeal’ of mine was temporary. Hence, I had no right to talk about the bad roads unless I was going to do travel on it each day of the year. My take on the water supply issue was ignored since I now lived in a country with round the clock drinking water. My frustration on the infinitely grueling power cuts was irrelevant since I had to put up with it only for a few weeks unlike before. It was almost like a woman forbidding a man from having a take about child birth. No uterus, no opinion.

As the years flew by each one of my homecomings thereafter were transformed into Herculean life lessons. With time (and a lot of reminders) I stopped trying to compare the West and my home and began accepting her as she was – full of issues but brazenly original. It was after such realizations that I wanted to erase all memories of my first homecoming when I had made such a fool of myself by trying to connect dots that didn’t exist. Complex lessons learnt in such simple journeys.

I was reminded of this first homecoming since my wife is now set to embark on hers in a couple of weeks. Armed with a million ambitions and an infinite supply of genuine goals, she excitedly awaits her return to her roots – her beloved Mumbai. She just cannot wait to re-indulge into 'khidki vada paos' and 'poli bhaaji'. She eagerly looks forward to her local trains and evenings with friends in Dombivali. She is constantly reminded about the priceless joy she is bound to experience when she spends invaluable time with her two year old niece. Yes – she just cannot wait to re-discover herself back in her nest.

All I plan to do now is sit back and watch her go through the experiences that came to me a decade ago. This time, fortunately, I hope she is less surprised given my feedback about the same. But nevertheless, I am excited for her since I know it will be a journey she will never forget. A hundred more journeys back home might happen but it’s the first one that always stays.

First homecomings – an experience we never forget but ironically, become spots we’d most like to move on from sometimes.