The recently concluded Cinequest film festival in San Jose featured four films of Indian origin. We bring you mini reviews of these films.

Troublemaker

Rekha  (Pranidhi Varshney), an award-winning writer in her school-days, is now reduced to scribbling one-liners on paper napkins and bathroom walls.  She wakes up one morning to find that her peers are leaving for bigger and better things while she herself has no job, no prospects, and no assignments to pay the bills. Dire straits, the threat of being evicted, and newly-gained knowledge that her estranged father, Dev (Ajay Mehta) is a millionaire, force her to seek him out.

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The semi-autobiographical and monochromatic drama, which takes the viewer from Los Angeles to Seattle and Reno, only tautens when Rekha finally comes face to face with her inexplicably cold and distant father.  Director Geeta Malik states that she has tried to treat the character fairly, without painting him out to be the villain, and has let Rekha arrive at that conclusion on her own.  Rekha finds that the outcome of the meeting with her father is less than desirable; yet, it gives her closure and a perspective necessary for her to come to terms with her feelings and self.

Madly in Love

Devan, a soccer coach for the Swiss youth team, is on the verge of marriage to a young woman, Nisha, from Sri Lanka, with whom he has been corresponding and getting to know through the Internet.  As destiny would have it, a few days before his engagement, he falls in love with a local Swiss girl, Leo, causing upheavals and rifts within his conservative family.  Torn between wanting to do the right thing by his family and fiancée and following his heart, he has a tough decision to make.

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Interestingly, this love story is directed by a Swiss filmmaker, Anna Luif.  Inspired by Bollywood, the predictable drama has a hero whose dreams of romance involve visions of rose petals floating around him, dancing with his ladylove on the green hills of Switzerland and weaving his way through colorful yards of cloth billowing in the wind.  Stirrings of love also make him break into song and dance with his posse, in Michael Jackson style, with the dances performed with gusto, if not grace.

Leo’s transvestite neighbor also lends humor with his love of all things Bollywood, but the parody does not rise above the trite.

Bard Songs

Bard Songs is a delightful collection of richly-depicted stories which brings to life fables from India and Mali. Breathtaking vistas and excellent cinematography characterize this brilliant portrayal of folk-lore. Inspired from traditional tales, the three stories are woven into song and have a message that is profound.

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The first tale in the triptych brings a touch of rural India and is set in Jodhpur, where a plastic collector comes across a series of hardships, but is unwavering in his faith that what is ostensibly a blow can be a blessing in disguise.  Each time misfortune befalls him, the villagers extend their sympathy to the poor man.

His answer to the pity heaped upon him is that one does not necessarily know that these occurrences are bad.  Dharmender Singh’s portrayal of the plastic collector who is quietly accepting of his position in the lower strata society is laudable for its fitting restraint.

The second tale is set in Djenne, Mali where a nine-year-old boy, Bouba, goes in search of an answer that is crucial to his promotion to the next grade in school, “What is the largest part of all knowledge?”  The weighty question, which would baffle the best of adults, has the solemn Bouba searching high and low for the answer.  Finding no answer in the Quran, he goes to the city where he meets a blacksmith, a builder, a fisherman, and a hunter, from whom he learns the art of forging, plastering, fishing, and tracking an animal, respectively, but no answers to his question. Kolado Bocoum’s performance as the endearing and earnest Bouba, for whom play is a distraction from his quest, is brilliant.

The last tale in the triptych is a familiar tale of an unimaginative man, who executes ideas from all and sundry, to his own detriment. Set in Ladhakh, India, this is the story of an obliging resident of a remote settlement in the mountains who is ordered by the village chief to sell his calf and buy a mobile phone with the proceeds.  He sets off with his daughter on the long journey to the city and encounters several people on the way who have plenty of advice on how to care for the dzo (calf) in order to get the best price for it.  Being of sweet disposition and without an original idea in his head, he puts to effect all the unsolicited advice, with droll results.

Bard Songs is remarkable in the universality of theme and similarity in folk songs across cultures and even continents.  Each colorful tale is told in a spellbinding song, with a soupcon of humor and a dollop of good sense.

Raavanan

Professional duty turns into a personal vendetta for S.P. Dev, when his wife Ragini is kidnapped by a guerilla leader, Veera.  This contemporary adaptation of the epic Ramayana advances through formidable jungle terrain where Ragini is held captive for fourteen days.

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Directed by Mani Ratnam, who is known for his riveting ouevre, the uniqueness about this film is that it was shot simultaneously in both Tamil and Hindi, posing a challenge for the actors.  Rai and Vikram both had to overcome language-barriers, but Vikram, who played Veera (Raavana) in the Tamil version and Dev (Rama) in the Hindi version, had the additional challenge of switching roles after every shot.  Aishwarya Rai’s essay at speaking Tamil, a language foreign to her, is convincing.  Vikram’s rendition of the psychotic and predatorial Veera, who ululates more than her speaks, is flawless.  While A.R. Rahman’s music is compelling for the most part, the synthesis of techno-pop in one of the songs is simply incongruous.  The movie’s redemption is the humanizing of Raavana and the director’s ability to sway the viewer’s opinion, where good and bad become blurry.

Shot in several locations including the forests of Tumkur, in Karnataka, and Athirapilly Falls in Kerala, the cinematography is breathtaking. Tepid story aside, watching both the Tamil and Hindi version of the film for comparison of characters and roles, and contrasting Vikram’s and Abhishek Bachchan’s portrayal of the villain should be an interesting exercise.

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