DAVID. Director: Bejoy Nambiar. Players: Neil Nitin Mukesh, Vikram, Vinay Virmani, Tabu, Nasser, Lara Dutta, Isha Sharvani, Rohini Hattangadi, Monica Dogra. Music: Mikey McCleary. Theatrical Release (Reliance).
In a new movie season replete with inexplicable or mundane sounding movie titles (Murder 3, Special 26), a title like David at first glance may be scoffed away as sophomoric. The truth couldn’t be farther. In a startling array of stories that brings together three finely etched characters by the name of David, Nambiar’s superb David is, simply put, enigmatic filmmaking that puzzles, unexpectedly teases and delights the senses.
The tres Davids are as divergent from each other as the era they inhabit. The first David (N.M. Mukesh) is a mafia enforcer in London circa 1975. The second David (Vikram), whose adventure is set in 1999, is drinking his way up the beach in Goa while the third David (Virmani) is a struggling Mumbai musician looking for a break in 2012 under the watchful eye of his church-going father (Nasser).
Period pieces are challenging in that they must constantly pay attention to the staging to keep up the illusion of an alternate time window. Getting the staging to jive seamlessly is the thankless task that has let down many of the best of cinematographers. The work of three different cinematographers that aid David creates an appealing visual symmetry that is difficult to dismiss.
Sanu Varghese’s London is a sumptuous black and white vignette set against bell bottoms and choppy sideburns while P.S. Vinod’s Mumbai is a blue-tinted urban jungle synched with the torrential monsoons that frequent the vistas. Compared to those two pieces, R. Rathnavelu’s Goa sets are bright yellow, tapping into the sun-drenched cliffs and town squares. Making the three far flung settings interesting on their own makes it that much easier for director Nambiar to make the plot gel.
These three extremes—like three angles of a vast triangular canvass—have a much broader, more urgent message to impart. The three settings successfully sell three base realities of modern life. David in London is swimming backwards against the tide of his illegitimate birth while searching for his father; David in Mumbai single-handedly fights religious bigotry thinly disguised as political theater; while David in Goa is a love struck middle aged man smitten with his best friend (Sharvani).
The acting is uniformly first rate. This may be the first instance of Mukesh coming through as a serious performer. Toronto-born Virmani nicely traverses from dreadlocked singer to a one-man street fighter. Hattangadi as a hate-fomenting Bombay (as it was in 1999, remember?) politician, Dogra as a Muslim girl being forced to marry against her will in London and Dutta as upscale single mother add nuanced credits to their roles.
The emotional pendulum of the story, however, beautifully swings between Mukesh’s London gangster and Vikram’s love-struck Goan fool. Ultimately Vikram’s ruffian wins over not only in acing the country bumpkin but also because of the presence of Tabu’s massage parlor owner Frenny, a lady of not inconsequential repute. The platonic friendship between Vikram’s David and Tabu’s Frenny-the-temptress is a brilliant interplay between David wanting something he can’t have and Frenny standing as the David’s conscience, keeping him grounded to the straight and narrow.
The soundtrack, which features Remo Fernandez, Modern Mafia, Bramfature and Mikey McCleary, packs an eclectic song pack that captures a surprise or two. A standout is the sensational re-working of the classic qawalli “Dama Dam Mast Kalander,” rendered with gusto by Rekha Bharadwaj and orchestrated by New Zealand native McCleary.
McCleary’s version retains the tune’s ecclesiastic ethos even with trumped up electric keyboards and a rock guitar.
Staged during a sumptuous wedding and voiced on the screen by veteran Sarika, the tune taps into a bygone era of low-hanging chandeliers in party rooms themselves reminiscent of low-light opium dens.
The winter time may be optimal for getting into serious films, at least some of which are no doubt released to stay in the forefront of critical voting for the annual film awards season already under way on the sub-continent. Relative newcomer Nambiar now has an appropriate calling card where and when it counts.
Globe trekker, aesthete, photographer, ski bum, film buff, and commentator, Aniruddh Chawda writes from Milwaukee.