25 May 2010

The Films of Mani Ratnam - Looking ahead to Raavan

Mani Ratnam: the most accomplished contemporary Indian film maker working today.

The contemporary era has seen more Tamil film makers alternate quite fluently and regularly across both Hindi mainstream cinema and indigenous concerns. Mani Ratnam’s work seems to suggest it is possible to maintain a successful parallel career. When directing a new project, Ratnam ensures he remains loyal to his Tamil roots by making two versions of the film; one in Hindi and the other in Tamil. Of course, this may seem logistically complicated and expensive but it underlines the increasing demands placed on regionally specific directors who have to cater to a range of audiences rather than just the traditional mainstream collective. Inevitably, a revealing critical dichotomy exists in the recent work of Ratnam as usually the Tamil versions seem to be superior to the more compromised sensibilities of his mainstream Hindi films.

Director Mani Ratnam was born in Madras, 1956. His father, Venus Ratnam, was a successful film producer whilst his older brother was a distributor. Though Ratnam graduated with a Business degree, it seemed somewhat inevitable that he too would make cinema his foremost vocation. Debuting in 1983 with a light hearted melodrama, Pallavi Anupallavi starred a young Anil Kapoor. Ratnam’s early work showed his ability to work across regional cinemas, making films in the languages of Kannada, Malayalam (Unaroo, 1984) and Telugu (Geentanjali, 1989). One of the reasons why Ratnam has been able to keep ahead of the Bombay film industry is that he built up an early reputation for setting high technical standards and ‘invested heavily in the acquisition of technologically sophisticated equipment.’ (Rajadhyaksha & Willemen 1994: 183) Perhaps it is off little surprise that the South Indian film industry has arguably produced some of the best cinematographers, editors and composers of the last twenty years, many of whom have been courted by mainstream Hindi film projects.

The Tamil gangster film Nayakan/Hero was the breakthrough feature for Ratnam.

Modelled on Coppola’s The Godfather (1972) and featuring Kamal Hassan in the lead role, Nayakan (Hero, 1987) was the breakthrough. Taking its inspiration from the true life story of Bombay gangster Varadarajan Mudaliar, Nayakan’s powerful depiction of the underworld prefigured Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s Parinda (1989) whilst going on to influence Ram Gopal Verma’s Satya (1998). Rajadhyaksha & Willemen argue that Nayakan ‘draws on 30 years of Tamil Nadu’s star/politician images and directly plays to Tamil people’s anti-Hindi feelings’. (1994: 444) In this context, even though Ratnam may have been considered an iconoclast, very few Tamil film makers have been able to maintain a distance from the influential politics of the DMK party.

Ratnam followed the critical acclaim of Nayakan with a string of commercially successful films including Agni Nakshatram (1988) which appropriated MTV aesthetics. Though Nayakan had already attracted noticeable attention from the Bombay film industry, it was Ratnam’s controversial 1992 film Roja (The Rose, 1992), which received a nationwide release and saw him shift the ideological agenda away from regional preoccupations and ‘take on the role of addressing national issues – namely the rise of separatist and independence movements within India’s borders’ (Chaudhuri, 2005: 162) in his triptych on terrorism. Roja was equally significant in terms of Ratnam’s debut collaborations with gifted cinematographer Santosh Sivan and more strikingly music composer A. R. Rahman who has scored most of Ratnam’s films. If Roja tackled the politically contentious issue of Kashmir then Bombay (1993) provocatively switched the focus to communalism and the 1993 Bombay riots in which Hindu fanatics spurred on by the twisted nationalist sentiments of the Shiv Sena destroyed the Babri Mosque, leading to widespread anti-Muslim persecution.

Manisha Koirala as Meghna in Ratnam's first Hindi feature; Dil Se (1998)

Upon directing Iruvar (The Duo, 1997), Ratnam directed Dil Se (From the Heart, 1998) his first Hindi language film with superstar Shahrukh Khan in the lead role. Dealing with homeland terrorism through the contentious figure of a female suicide bomber, Dil Se demonstrated Ratnam’s visually creative capacity to seamlessly integrate song and dance into the narrative. Such interruptions in a Mani Ratnam film are ones filled with real imagination and originality and in many ways Alaipayuthey (Waves, 2000) was an evocative response to the all too familiar boy meets girl romance which had come to define the formulaic landscape of mainstream Indian cinema. In 2002, Ratnam turned his attention to Tamil militancy in Sri Lanka and with the award winning Kannathil Muthamittal (A Peck on the Cheek), he returned to terrorism but through the eyes of a young girl. Many would argue that Kannathil Muthamittal was a creative high point in the career of Mani Ratnam and it does seem like his most accomplished film to date.

Guru (2007) - The second collaboration with Abhishek Bachchan and Ratnam's last film.

The domestic failure of
Dil Se may have jaded Ratnam but in 2004 he returned to the Bombay film industry, directing Yuva (Youth) which featured an ensemble cast made up of Ajay Devgan and Abhishek Bachchan. With dialogues by Anurag Kashyap and a slick soundtrack by A.R. Rahman, the film’s lukewarm box office performance was attributed to the political content of the narrative. However, the film helped to revive the flagging career of Abhishek Bachchan who had entered the industry to a series of flops and was in desperate need of a credible award winning performance. Yuva marked the beginning of a cross over collaboration between Ratnam and Abhishek, and together in 2007 with Guru, they struck box office gold. A rag to riches political biopic, Guru constructs a compelling narrative around the towering central performance of Abhishek Bachchan. Ratnam latest project, a mythological epic Raavan, the third collaboration with Abhishek Bachchan is set for release on June 18 (check out the website for more info) and with both Santosh Sivan and A. R. Rahman returning as cinematographer and composer, this is likely to recreate the magic of their ground breaking work on Roja in 1992. With the up and coming crop of Hindi films for the summer release schedule looking pretty weak and ordinary, Ratnam is the one who can offer some respite from the trauma of Kites and Houseful. From the trailer, Raavan does look an exciting prospect and with cinematography by Sivan, music by the Mozart of Madras and editing by Sreekar Prasad, how could this possibly fail?

23 May 2010

FOUR LIONS (Dir. Chris Morris, 2010, UK) - Is he a martyr or is he a Jalfrezi?

Along with David Baddiel’s well received The Infidel and now the Chris Morris directed Jihadi satire Four Lions it is the comedy genre which has thus far proven to be the most significant vehicle for confronting the post 9-11 radicalisation of the British Muslim community. Chris Morris is arguably one of the more controversial figures to have emerged out of British TV in the past few years. Researching extensively for such a contentious project (three years), it is tellingly evident in the clarity with which Morris probes the ‘confused’ minds of the British Muslim male that laughter is the one means of discourse upon which we can all agree. The Observer film critic Philip French in his review compares Four Lions to Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove in terms of satirising a political context, that of Islamic terrorism, which most media find somewhat objectionable to debate or analyse without resorting to outright, simplistic or demonic condemnation. In many ways, Four Lions taps into a British tradition of political and social satire which can be traced back to the Ealing Comedies, Monty Python and even the frivolous Carry on films. By focusing on the British Muslim community in the North and especially Yorkshire means that a lot of the humour generated by the five main leads extends from the perspective of the British Pakistani youth.

The stroke of genius with Four Lions is that by humanising Islamic fundamentalism and depicting the inner lives of suicide bombers with a focus on family, friendship and loyalty, the film brings into the mainstream an aspect of British society that much of the media including film has simply refused to explore with such incisive social commentary. Four Lions has been an unexpected commercial success and Optimum releasing responded wisely by opening the film on more screens in the second week. The ensemble performances led by Riz Ahmed and Kayvan Novak are spot on whilst the screenplay (which has obviously benefited from improvisatory workshops) by Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain (writers behind In the Loop) produces a consistent level of hilarity.

It is hard to pick out a favourite sequence but this is one that has already become somewhat of a classic scene:

ROAD, MOVIE (Dir. Dev Benegal, 2009, India/US) - The Magic of Cinema

Still awaiting a UK release date director Dev Benegal’s latest film Road, Movie has met with disastrous domestic box office results. That I guess is going to be the real tragedy of this impressive third feature from the nephew of Shyam Benegal. Both of Benegal’s first two films – English, August (1994) and Split Wide Open (1999) are currently unavailable on DVD and are referred to by some critics as having heralded the beginning of a new wave in Indian art cinema. It is difficult to try and position his latest film in terms of a wider body of work thus I am going to stay clear of getting into any kind of detailed analysis of his status as a contemporary auteur. A co-production between the US and India, Benegal’s film is one of the most magical films I have seen in a while. Combining the love of cinema with the conventions of the road movie genre, the story sees Vishnu (Abhay Deol), a symbol of the middle class Indian youth who has become trapped in the family business of selling hair oil travelling across the mythical landscape of Rajasthan’s deserts and roads so he can return a tired old Chevy truck to a museum. It is only when he picks up a young boy (Mohammed Faisal) and a mysterious aging man (Satish Kaushik in a wonderfully touching and steal scening performance) is he made aware of the Chevy he is driving houses a mobile cinema including reels of film and a rusty old projector.

The road movie genre means that the destination is less important than the changes and discovery a group of people undergo whilst travelling together as a displaced family. In many ways, this is a conventional road movie with Benegal using the allegory of cinema as a way of illustrating how it cuts across society, vanquishing problems and transforming the lives of people. Benegal's film is also hugely reflexive in that Vishnu's coming of age is manifested through two scenarios which have often been repeated in popular Hindi cinema: the villain and the love interest. Falling for the charms of a beautiful gypsy woman (Tannishtha Chatterjee) and heroically standing up to the despotic overtures of a rural bandit (Yashpal Sharma), Vishnu's transformation is both comically staged whilst in a way paying homage to the satisfying escapism of the Bollywood masala movie. A number of sequences stand out including the midnight Mela on the desert plains of Rajasthan and in particular the first occasion in which Vishnu and his helpers set up the mobile cinema, projecting the images of classic Hindi cinema (Deewar) on to the walls of a police station.

Abhay Deol is fast becoming the leading actor of his generation, having starred in a series of critically acclaimed offbeat art films including the noirish Manorama Six Feet Under (2007), Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! (2008) and Dev D (2009). Road, Movie is another one Abhay Deol can chalk up on what is shaping up to be an impressive filmography. Another aspect to savour is the technically flawless shape of the film including magnificent cinematography by Michel Amathieu, an understated ambient score by Michael Brook and a rich production design by Hollywood Anne Seibel. In terms of cinematic influences, Benegal draws upon a range of classic European and American road movies including Wim Wenders definitive Kings of the Road (1976) and Cinema Paradiso (1988). Benegal's film is one of the most poignantly crafted Indian art films of the last few years and it deserves to be seen by a wider audience. The website for the film is a little movie in itself and is full of useful information related to the production context. Road, Movie is currently available through a DVD import from India but I am still hopeful it will get a UK release. A masterpiece? It might just be.

17 May 2010

ROBIN HOOD (Dir. Ridley Scott, 2010, US) - So the legend begins...

Russell Crowe and his Merry Men.

After the trauma of Iron Man Part Deux, it was a comfort to know that not all Hollywood summer tent poles films are underwhelming and pretentious. British auteur or should I craftsman, Ridley Scott, has had somewhat of an intermittent career of late. Aside from Gladiator, many of the collaborations with Russell Crowe have fell short of the mark both commercially and critically. This lean period has included films such as A Good Year and Body of Lies - both which feature a miscast Russell Crowe. Crowe's stoic persona has often been compared to the old school Hollywood real men of Mitchum and Cooper and he certainly seems to have far greater screen presence than most of the leading men of his generation. With their latest film, arguably both Scott and Crowe return to the safe territory of the hugely successful Gladiator by refashioning the Robin Hood myth for a new contemporary audience. Some critics have said that it is simply an attempt to reclaim lost ground in terms of box office and the open weekend figures certainly seem to suggest that the epic canvas is one that strikes a chord with audiences. I'm not going to say that Robin Hood is a return to form for Ridley Scott as I would argue against most critics who seem to be of the opinion that he regained his form when he directed Gladiator. I would argue Scott's last great film was way back in 91 with Thelma and Louise which was one that relied greatly on a wonderfully written screenplay. Scott's take on Robin Hood rejects many of the previous Americanised interpretations of the myth yet it also holds on to a number of crowd pleasing conventions including the notion of the merry men.

Some have compared this to Nolan's Batman Begins as it works effectively as an origins story, finishing at a point of non closure and setting up a potential franchise. The film is deceptively light in terms of action unlike the trailer which pitches it as another Gladiator but Scott's pictorial landscapes of the English countryside reminds one of Kubrick's Barry Lyndon. Very few film makers come close to the technical precision that characterises the cinema of Ridley Scott and even though he has wavered of late, his understanding of cinema as a spectacle recalls the proficiency with which many directors worked so effortlessly in the studio system. In terms of the wider context, the continuing economic crisis and the banking bail out makes the figure of Robin Hood quite a pertinent one as the resistance he shows to the ruling elite seems perfectly reasonable given the social disparity that plagues society today. His status as an outlaw constructs him as a populist symbol of the oppressed and ideologically I guess it is this sense of indignation what continues to make him such a fascinating and universally recognised myth. One a final note, Hollywood cinema continues to draw extensively from Homer's The Odyssey and the familiar narrative of the journey home is one which even Scott repeatedly invokes throughout the film but in a dramatically compelling way.

12 May 2010

IRON MAN 2 (Dir. Jon Favreau, 2010, US) - Yawn...

Robert Downey Jr as Tony Stark ponders how they are going to convince audiences to come back for a third film. Err, I guess, through the $100 million marketing campaign, that's how!

It’s as if all of those involved in this ridiculously over hyped and over zealous high concept banality swallowed the entire supply of Hollywood stupid pills at once. ‘I have privatised world peace!’ exclaims Tony Stark (Downey Jr. in yet another excruciatingly self obsessed vanity performance) as he prepares to stupefy us with his jingoistic gesticulating. Similarly like Iron Man, at the core of this film is nothing but another empty money making franchise which by over egging its regressive cold war context wishes to enact serious ideological engagement. Mickey Rourke hardly gets a few lines, Sam Rockwell looks as though he is in the wrong movie whilst Don Cheadle is plainly miscast as Tony Stark’s subservient black side kick. Why on earth would Cheadle take such a demeaning role? Here’s an explanation – pay day! I’m not quite sure of the politics that were played out in regards to the failure to convince Terence Howard to reprise his role but I suspect it might have had something to do with bankability. What’s worse is the level of contempt with which the spectator is treated – for nearly two hours nothing significant happens except Peppa Potts! (Gwyneth Paltrow in an Oscar winning performance) pitiful attempts to make the much vilified figure of the CEO palatable and even angelic. Samuel L Jackson shows up much later as Samuel L Jackson whilst he is credited with the name of Nick Fury. Actually, his trademark grimacing and leering reminded me just how awful Jon Voight actually is in the overstated Anaconda film. I’m not sure if Favreau’s directing qualifies as anything significant, supporting Truffaut’s claim that an auteur is one who can transform mediocre material into something altogether more substantial. I’m afraid this entry in the Iron Man franchise leaves a trail of debris that slays the spectator into a state of angry displeasure and pure rage.

10 May 2010

BRICK (Dir. Rian Johnson, 2005, US) - 'She called me a dirty word'

Sharp, breathless, sardonic and bristling with a plethora of creative ideas, Rian Johnson's 2005 debut Brick is a noir filled existential journey through the underbelly of the California suburbs. Inspired by the hard boiled traditions of the first and highly influential phase of noir, Brick's convoluted narrative, scheming femme fatale and intuitive youth sleuth in the form of the talented Joseph Gordon-Levitt offers a biting social commentary on youth culture. Whilst on the surface Rian Johnson's may have been working with familiar genre conventions, what makes this a particularly interesting entry in the catalogue of contemporary noir is the verbal sparring expressed through a cryptic dialect harking back to a post war literary cynicism. Both Huston's The Maltese Falcon and Altman's The Long Goodbye are the clearest noir influences on Johnson's film; the impressionable falcon perched on the Pin's desk is a strong iconographic link. With a denouement expertly staged on the seemingly overstated symbolism of the high school playing field, the film's vision of alienated youth makes for a compelling illustration of the American indie film.

1 May 2010

SANKAT CITY (Dir. Pankaj Advani, 2009, India) - To Live and Die in Mumbai

Written and directed by Pankaj Advani, Sankat City is a rollicking and unpretentiously inventive comedy caper that was released in the summer of 2009 to little commercial success. However, it was favourably reviewed on its initial release and I can see why it works so well as a reflexive postmodern take on mainstream Indian genre films. Sankat City could probably be placed alongside the likes of Rocket Singh and Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! as superior examples of the comedy film. All three films seem to share a commonality with ensuring the more heightened elements involving scams are anchored by a likable set of characters. It is their existence on the periphery of society that allows in particular Sankat City to work out such social exclusion as a cathartic narrative in which triumphalism doesn't come across as awkwardly misguided or riddled with sentimental cliques. Director Pankaj Advani manages to sustain interest primarily through an endless amount of energy, both in terms of creative ideas and also in a hilarious ability to poke fun at the the world of film making and the superficial genres it spawns. Both Anupam Kher as a playful gangster don and Kay Kay Menon (playing against type) as a small time thief deliver fine performances whilst the irascible Chunky Pandey shows up in a deranged 1970s style double role. Writer and director Pankaj Advani's postmodern and stylised cinematic sensibilities seem to parallel that of his contemporaries including Dibankar Banerjee, Shimit Amin and Anurag Kashyap which suggests that it is possible to work within the parameters of the mainstream whilst remaining resolutely authorial and subversive. Sankat City is avaliable to buy on DVD and comes highly recommended as an example of the new wave? of Indian cinema.