Tag Archives: 2016

Butterfly Ripples

Lion, Film

LION.  Director:  Garth Davis.  Players:  Dev Patel, Nicole Kidman, Rooney Mara, Priyanka Bose, David Wenham, Nawazuddin Siddique, Deepti Naval, Sunny Pawar, Abhishek Bharate.  English, Hindi and Bengali with Eng. Sub-titles.  Theatrical Release (The Weinstein Company).  MPAA Rating:  PG-13 (Parents Strongly Cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.)

To stand out, origin stories must compel that tug to identify “home” for all of us – be it brick and mortar or an abode for the heart to lower anchor. The big screen christening of the real-life story of Indian-Australian Saroo Brierley’s search for his roots could easily have fallen the way of an unappealing chronology of slum life or an impersonal rags-to-riches diary. Bringing together a gifted cast, however, Davis’ feature debut Lion uses simple story telling that is intimate, appealing and also disturbing for its graphic humanity to score a phenomenal entry.

For five-year-old Saroo (Pawar) and his family – his brother Guddu (Bharate) and mom (Bose) – existence in a poor north Indian hamlet is hard but not impossible. On a routine hunting and scavenging run with Guddu, Saroo is left alone and unknowingly gets on the wrong train. Ending up in Kolkota and dogged by child predators, and now utterly despairing at having broken away from his mom and brother, Saroo is eventually adopted by an Australian couple (Kidman and Wenham).   Two decades later, the grown up Saroo (Patel), can’t shake a lust to re-trace his lost childhood family and so begins a fateful search.

Luke Davies’ script broadly follows Saroo Brierley’s 2014 book A Long Way Home. While the adult performers brand the movie, plausibility here would be impossible if not for eight-year-old Pawar disappearing into five-year-old Saroo so beautifully.   Saroo’s Madhya Pradesh childhood – while far from ideal – captures the magic and the bond that only very close families share.  Saroo’s faint memories from his Madhya Pradesh early years, re-envisioned evocatively by Greig Fraser’s minimalist camerawork, go from a recurring memory of a butterfly grove to sharing a mango with his mother toiling in the field to train rides that off-tracked Saroo so dramatically to begin with.

How Hollywood movies go about authenticating their India experience can be a telling sign in how India-grounded the stories end up. As good a movie as it was, Slumdog Millionaire essentially kept India at an arm’s distance.  Lion, on the other hand, wallows in its Indian factor. The earthiness seeps in early and is confidently retouched on again and again. While Slumdog viewed India from the outside looking in, Lion roars from the inside looking out. To give this wonderfully international story a native Indian vibe while keeping intact a broader frame is remarkable filmmaking indeed.

As the grizzly haired budding Tasmanian businessman Saroo, Patel hits the right notes in merging his longings to re-connect with building a life Down Under. His pain is palpable, so much so that he takes a sabbatical from his girlfriend Lucy (Mara) and engages Google Earth to pinpoint a spot that could be 1,000 miles from Kolkota in an unknown direction.  As the mother with cried out eyes, Kidman shoulders a brave front while keeping the family together – the couple has another adopted son from India who is often a point of family squabbles. Naval as the schoolmarm adoption agency organizer, Siddique as a suspicious, saccharin-sweet Kolkota stranger bearing gifts for the young Saroo, Mara as the girlfriend and Bose as Saroo’s birth mother round out a terrific cast.

The plight of children lost in India – and there could be thousands if not millions –  or anywhere else for that matter is replete with danger.  Child traffickers lurk at every corner, children get “loaned” out to well-heeled guests overnight – even from government run homes for lost youth and children cry themselves a lullaby to sleep in hopes of warding off that very same evil. Davis does not shy away from these horrors while leaving out the most lurid – and most horrifying – details to the imagination.

Backing up to that esoteric “home,” it can be made up of wooden trails that go nowhere in particular, that butterfly patch, the sounds of carefree children bathing in the river and a train passing nearby or the sudden fragrant whiff from a plateful of freshly dropped jalebi. The saddest moment in Lion, a hard and fast break from what the five year Saroo calls home, comes when Saroo is first handed a photo of his adoptive parents and slowly, silently must surrender to an unfathomable possibility he may never again see his birth family again.  That point of departure sums up the entire movie in a few seconds.  It could happen on the other side of the globe. Davis makes it all so urgently relevant for the here and now.

EQ: A

Globe trekker, aesthete, photographer, ski bum, film buff, and commentator, Aniruddh Chawda writes from Milwaukee.

Masks of Truth

PINK. Director: Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury.  Players: Amitabh Bachchan, Taapsee Pannu, Kirti Kulhari, Andrea Tariang, Piyush Mishra, Angad Bedi.  Music: Shantanu Moitra.  Hindi with Eng. sub-tit.  Theatrical release (NH Studioz)

PINK Official Trailer

Late into a Delhi evening, a car rushes to a hospital. Inside are three young men, one of whom is bleeding profusely from a nasty cut above one eye.  Across town the easygoing lives of three young women, who share an apartment in an upwardly mobile enclave, takes an unexpected and ugly detour.  The three women appear to have been involved in the incident that resulted in the young man’s eye injury.  What exactly happened?  Why the blood? Why the secrecy? Why the fear? And all of this happens in just the first ten minutes.

From this unsettling, uneven high stakes opening we are on to something remarkable. The three men claim to have been attacked by the women after agreeing to meet them after a rock concert. Of the three men, Rajveer (Bedi) belongs to a powerful and well-connected family while the women—Minal (Pannu), Falak (Kulhari) and Andrea (Tariang) are working girls from modest backgrounds. The men begin to harass the women.  Minal gets nearly run over by a car and is then attacked and Falak loses her job. The police, not countering any of the womens’ claims, instead jail Minal on attempted murder charges.

Slow but astute in his step, Deepak Sehgal (Bachchan) is an ageing retired attorney caring for his ill wife. Sehgal is the neighbor to the three women and guesses what might have happened and, ever so reluctantly, steps in to help the women in court. What follows is an excellent court drama that lays bare the hypocrisy of social norms that allow men to be independent and decry women for choosing to do the same thing—especially when it comes to living arrangements.

As the tense splendid court drama unfolds, with the women represented by Sehgal and the men represented by a bald-headed lawyer (Mishra), crowded court room adult confrontations that speak boldly on what makes up sexual consent and sexual morality in a changing society take center stage. This is indeed uncharted territory for a mainstream Indian film. Should the accused individual’s ethnicity, bank balance, dating history or age at first sexual experience matter? What does it mean when a woman, anyone really, says “no” to a come on?

Like highly refined court procedurals, Pink also tenses up quickly. Credibility is questioned. Memories are recalled. Versions are re-told. Alibis are offered. Alibis are denied. Witnesses are cross examined. Closed circuit video is played, and replayed. With what actually happened shown almost as an afterthought as the camera is pulling away, the urgency is all about the here and now. What the men are saying against what the women are saying.  His word against hers.

Bachchan’s Sehgal wears a mask during his carefully routed daily walks through a neighborhood park. Outwardly to ward off  Delhi’s polluted air, the mask brilliantly foreshadows fear—the fear of strangers. Anyone in the presence of the mask, especially in dimming light, is gripped by a stay-or-run existential jolt. This pretty much sums up the daily fears of urbanites, including Minal, Falak and Andrea after they are harassed. That the mask serves a perfunctory use is of little consequence. The fear it represents must be overcome.

Bachchan’s cranky-goat Sehgal is an old school legal eagle that wants to, and even needs to help, in part to compensate for his helplessness in not being able to help his ailing wife but also to help overcome official indifference he sees the women having to suffer. Pannu and Kulhari decently put up brave fronts and unite when their characters have to, while Bedi, as Rajveer, is a scion of privilege unprepared for court. Shantanu Moitra’s musical score is ear worthy with repeated listening.

The result is a modest budget movie that raked in huge box office returns— Bachchan’s biggest in recent years. For an original script that taps into collective fears about the perils of urban living, Pink has few parallels.  For opening social conversation, however, add Pink to the short list of notable Hindi movies that feature strong female characters having to clear their name in court following a sexual assault (Damini, Insaf Ka Tarazu, No One Killed Jessica).

EQ: A

Globe trekker, aesthete, photographer, ski bum, film buff, and commentator, Aniruddh Chawda writes from Milwaukee.

Banks Of An Ancient River

films_mohenjo_daro_cover

The enigma of Mohenjo Daro, the largest site attributed to the Indus Valley civilization, continues to be one of the most beguiling mysteries for anthropologists and historians. To transfer to the big screen a title that instantly evokes nothing short of epic storytelling would be a stupendous task. Ashutosh Gowariker, a specialist in constructing large scale box office hits like Lagaan(2001) and Jodhaa Akbar (2008) steps up to this task, and he has his work cut out for him. Even though this expensive undertaking puts up gorgeous sets, spectacular city-scapes and a decent music score, Mohenjo Daro lags behind in the ratings for great cinema that Gowariker is best known for.

Combing through a trove of known historical Mohenjo Daro lore, Gowariker’s team has pieced together a film based on speculation of what life might have been at the time. Sarman (Roshan), an adventuring laborer along with his uncle Durjan (Bharadwaj) collects indigo, a precious trading commodity at the time. He is from the outlying regions and finds himself drawn to the capital Mohenjo Daro. There, a run-in with Moonja (Singh), the son of Mohenjo Daro’s strong man Maham (Bedi), sets Sarman on a collision course intertwined with nothing short of the future of the city-state. Sarman’s interest in Channi (Hegde), the enchanting daughter of the temple priest only complicates Sarman’s prospects further, as Moonja also professes interest in the same girl.

The tantalizing detail and care that has gone into bringing all of this together is remarkable. The sets, from a 25-acre model city built in Bhuj to represent the city’s central baths which are the same dimensions as the actual baths dug up at the Pakistan site are eye-popping and beautiful. The mythology that centers on an emblem featuring a unicorn, a two tier way of life–an “upper city” for the Indus Valley one-percenter power players and the “lower city” for folks of meager means also accentuates an outlook that taps into feudalism as an ancient practice.

To describe it in broad strokes, this movie is an action-adventure-love story. This means that Roshan and Hegde have to feature on the screen extensively. Roshan’s Sarman finds himself in harm’s way with man-eating crocodiles, giant-sized cannibals and hordes of Moonja’s goons and also possible flooding in the Indus River which Maham the usurper has sinister plans to exploit. Because the Indus Valley script remains undeciphered to this day, that language remains unknown. Gowariker uses an interesting ploy to have the dialog revert to (mostly) classical Hindustani. The sub-titles come in handy.

So where are the gaps? The staggering budget, for one. Covered by one of the largest budgets ever for a Hindi movie, the “making of” was talked about for months before. Then, we heard about cost overruns and also about Roshan’s payday for this movie, reported to be equivalent to the full budgets of most A-list Hindi movies. Ouch! The shooting schedule was further delayed by Roshan having to recover from injuries suffered during the extensive action shoots. Ouch again!

A. R. Rahman’s score has one or two stops that make those pieces good listening. Javed Akhtar’s lyrics also toss in bits of an imaginary lingo ascribed to that period. The title track here is from the same school as Rahman’s celebratory “Azeem O Shaan Shahenshah” from Jodhaa Akbar and here also it sounds moderately pleasing. There are ample tribal chimes and wood instruments that form an alternate sound. The “alternate” however, could be Rahman in an experimental mood rather than the score being an out-of-this-world salute to an era that slipped unknown into antiquity. Still, “Tu Hai” and “Sindu Ma” sung by Rahman and Sanah Moidutty are love tracks—the latter is an ode to the Indus River and lingers on.

Released on the same day as Rustom, the other recent box office contender, Mohenjo Daro underperformed at the Box Office on a one to one count with Rustom. We need to wait and see if the tepid box office returns can help recover the massive outlay for the movie. The story of the rise and relatively sudden disappearance of the Indus Valley civilization, a culture that thrived in what is now primarily Pakistan and India about 4,000 years ago is shrouded in the mists of history. If nothing else, Gowariker deserves kudos for imaginatively recreating bits of that history.

EQ: B

Globe trekker, aesthete, photographer, ski bum, film buff, and commentator, Aniruddh Chawda writes from Milwaukee.