Lights, Camera, Conversation… “A lesson from last year”

The best resolve for 2012? Don’t expect anything, especially from the movies.

If it’s customary to welcome a new year not only by resolving to do right in the forthcoming months but also by learning from our wrongs in the months flown by, then the lesson is this: do not expect anything from any movie. Walking into a screening with a clean slate is one of my cherished ideals, which is why I strive not to hear, see or read about a film ahead of its release. The best thing, the only thing to do, in my opinion, is to step into the theatre and let the film speak for itself. And yet, there are times we are seduced by earlier accomplishments, which cling to the film like a damp fog – the haze of anticipation is unshakeable. Had Don 2 been made by a well-intentioned newcomer and not by the director who gave us Dil Chahta Hai and parts of Lakshya (which was a letdown in comparison, but seen from today’s vantage, very much a solid accomplishment), would we have been so crushed?

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But even Don 2, to me, wasn’t last year’s biggest disappointment, the film that wagged a pointy finger and cautioned me never to expect anything ever again. That film was Maneesh Sharma’s Ladies vs Ricky Bahl, which brought over most of the team from Band Baaja Baaraat, not just one of the best films from India in 2010 but one of the best rom-coms released, that year, in the world. The rom-com is a tricky thing to negotiate – you cannot have too many surprising turns of events, and yet, the film has to surprise; you have to tell the story of boy and girl getting together as if we thought they never would – and it was thrilling to witness such a well-conceived, well-executed instance of a genre, a type of film, that isn’t even our own. (Our emotion-saturated style of filmmaking lends itself better to rom-drams, romantic dramas.) If someone could pull off something so phenomenal, the next film arrives with a fair amount of expectation, with its own patina of damp fog, however much you tell yourself that every film is its own beast and has nothing to do with what came before it.

But Ladies vs. Ricky Bahl has almost nothing going for it, save for a few swatches of richly embroidered detail, mostly in the early portions involving a nouveau riche Punjabi family in Delhi, where the father prowls about his mansion in a velvety robe draped over a furry chest, and the mother pleads with the strange boy carrying in her daughter – his girlfriend, who’s passed out from a night of revelry – to deposit the girl in her bed upstairs. (The moment is so scary, yet so right – you have to laugh.) There are a number of talismanic carry-overs from Band Baaja Baaraat – a moment involving the hero and his helmet; the employment of “kaand” in a line of dialogue, a word we rarely get to hear in this context in Hindi cinema; Ranveer Singh’s confessional speech in front of Anushka Sharma; an ending whipped up from just the right kind of mush, sentimental and yet not too sickly sweet; and a terrific supporting cast populating the minor parts, the pick of whom is the actor playing a smarmy hotel employee named Shankar.

But after a promising beginning, almost nothing goes right. The audience is always two steps ahead (and this includes cottoning on to the real name of the identity-shifting con-man hero, which is bafflingly given away in the title). Perhaps the fault lies with the story. Do some types of narrative – like this con man being out-conned plot – defiantly resist the razzle-dazzle Bollywood treatment? In The Thomas Crown Affair, we go lightheaded with anxious delight watching hero and heroine, cold professionals who fall in love despite themselves, turning the screws and upping the ante on each other. Ladies vs Ricky Bahl follows a similar trajectory, but with songs that kill the mood and with unconvincing emotions. (Unlike The Thomas Crown Affair, we know that our heroes and heroines will not be allowed to become too heartless, too predatory). The team that succeeded beyond our wildest dreams with one non-Bollywood genre flounders about desperately with another. It shouldn’t matter. It’s just a movie. But somehow, this betrayal feels personal. Hence this resolution that, like most others, is likely doomed to failure. Do. Not. Expect. Anything. From. Any. Movie. In. 2012.

Lights, Camera, Conversation… is a weekly dose of cud-chewing over what Satyajit Ray called Our Films Their Films. An edited version of this piece can be found here.

Copyright ©2012 The Hindu. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

35 thoughts on “Lights, Camera, Conversation… “A lesson from last year”

  1. He is Ranveer Singh, BR.
    And yes, Ladies became such a boring fare after the Chopra girl episode.
    But how does one steer clear of all the news that we are bombarded with every day about these movies? At least for me, from the time something is announced, expectations keep building. And despite witnessing those crumble down on most occasions, I never learn the lessons.
    Is it humanely possible to achieve this kind of nirvana?

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  2. Swatches of richly embroidered detail also applies to the Indian Army, when not at war, portions of Lakshya that you seem to be partially charitable about, albeit in hindsight.

    The wide angled opening credits with super classy yet heavy fonts featuring a megawatt star cast is only a sampler of how Farhan Akhtar, when not dealing with his Arjun Bhasin – Adhuna Babhani helped Delhi hippies, deftly deals with the men in uniform scenes with such amazing restraint. Taking care of the protocol details yet not robbing the scenes of the emotional highs that Hindi/Indian cinema craves. Respecting the men in the background (IMA) and not reducing them to easily identifiable cardboard caricatures requires class and Farhan seems to have loads of it. His supporting cast (he has a good eye for it) is a joy to watch. Sushant Singh, Raj Zutshi, Sharad Kapoor, Om Puri infuse such delightful lightness even in scenes where the keyword is uptight and rigid. Also, he is smart to employ cliches and employ them fine as one of the commenters in your Chak De India review rightly says, “peeling the cliches to reveal afresh the reality behind the cliches.”

    BR, have you written about Farhan Akhtar’s ‘Positive’ and ‘Lakshya’ at length anywhere?

    Despite his Dons, he along with Shimit Amin gives me hope when one talks of unpretentious, richly textured, smartly textured, classic storytelling in Indian dramas with big stars and big economics. OK, I forgot Vishal Bhardwaj.

    These three seem to push the envelope gently, efficiently, successfully and silently without dropping names, and doing the best for Indian cinema; delivering on unkept promises.

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  3. “…Band Baaja Baaraat, not just one of the best films from India in 2010 but one of the best rom-coms released, that year, in the world.”

    If a reviews-for-sale critic had said such a thing about a Hindi movie, one would laugh it off. But coming from one of very few credible reviewers in the country, one does do a double take initially: Band Baaja Baaraat, one of the best rom-coms in the world?

    And then, admiringly, one agrees: hey, why the heck not?

    Considering many of us movie vampires have been tasting popular/serious cinema from most of the world in the recent decade, it’s time we got brave enough to make such a declaration about a piece of our popular culture.

    BR, yesss!

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  4. IMHO new directors who make a very good first film very rarely end up making a great second film. Its almost as if they exhausted all their ideas in the first one and the next movie is purely a money making venture due to the newly found fame.On the other hand a promising first film often times results in a a good second film, like in the case of Vishal Baradwaj, Dibakar Banerjee etc. I am probably making a sweeping generalization here but once a director’s style and approach becomes very familiar things start to get predictable and lot of times repeating the same cast and crew from your first film also does not help. Like Mani Ratnam’s idea of a heroine is always some one who is outspoken (Madhoo in Roja, Aishwarya in Guru, Amla in Agni Nakshatiram) and the similarities of the Chinna Chinna Aasai and Aishwaryas intro song in Guru are hard to ignore. RGV is a little bit of an exception ,despite making films sporadically, his combination of technique, interesting story telling approaches helped keep things interesting for a while (inspite of repetitive supporting actors) but even he has now started running out of ideas. The first film of a director is often a result of his or her life experiences that is fresh and realistic but once they are a few films old I guess all their social interactions are only with people from the film world and they lose touch with the real world and start getting into a rut.

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  5. Re mani ratnam’s heroines, I don’t know if you have noticed, but while there is a “your sister is my heroine” kind of urban chennai identification, Maniratnam also castrates his heroines sexually. The ONLY sexual being in a maniratnam film was Manisha koirala(who couldn’t help it, poor thing). Whenever he depicts someone with any sexuality, it is always the loose woman…the tramp….Aniiiiiitaaaaaa…..

    I think there is a madonna whore thing at operation here, It is also , IMO a caste hindu thing in Tamil nadu that their women are (maybe not depicted, from taboo) as sexual beings.

    I mean, there is no equivalent of a meena in her heyday, or Trisha krishnan in her early films or even the chubbily innocent laila Oozing some kind of innocent sexuality in Bala’s Nandha.

    We have instead revati in mouna ragam, Amala in Agni nakshatram(who looks bound up) or Aishwarya rai in ravanan or guru. MAybe he is unable to tell a sexual story /subtext in a character that so resembles someone he knows familiarly(whom he’s modelling his film characters after) that decency holds him back. ( You can’t make the heroine of Geetanjali/idhayatthai tirudathey behave like a sexpot if you modeled it after your 14 year niece! )

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  6. JJ, almost 15 years after he made Nayakan Mani made Kannathil Muthamittal. I wouldn’t dare club him with the other guys in the failed sophomore test list or the one-trick pony list. (And if you ask BR he had good things to say about the recent Raavanan as well)

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  7. it is a battle for the avid cinema buff to go into a cinema in a virginal state of mind..there is such an onslaught of promotional blitz that it really takes so much out of one to close all ones senses to it.

    confession-I actually read your reviews after i see the movie…and then love to agree ,disagree or jest think that sometimes great minds do think alike!!-

    recently I happen to watch something called “love to hate you” where members of the public who “hate” their stars can confront them…and the whole premise being that the haters need to be converted..I am for love and blue skies but man what new age bull is this..that we are made to feel guilty for all those kaapi conversations where we tear apart our loved figures..fascism me say!!..less is more and as there is an aura of mystery that movies and movie stars need to uphold..who wants a down to earth kamal!!?

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  8. BR,
    I have to confess that I was surprised that you edited out the name of the female film reviewer from the highest selling English newspaper that i had mentioned in my previous comment. It is an online open secret that not only are her reviews-for-sale but that she was proven to have plagiarised American film reviews (http://jaiarjun.blogspot.com/2004/11/whorism-in-film-writing.html) ; she doesn’t need any discretion.

    so, why this….da ?!

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  9. rameshram: Thats a very astute observation but counterpoint Nirosha in Agni Natchathiram ? . What about Shalini in Alaipayuthey ?

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  10. rameshram: not sure what you mean? Are you saying that the sexuality in the characters Meena and Trisha played in their “heyday” lacks in a Maniratnam female lead? If so, that really is down to personal preference. (slightly worrying too) ;)

    Nirosha in Agni Natchathiram is as Sexy as Revathi in Mouna Ragam! (IMO) I think every female lead of his can be looked on as sexual beings – of course to different degrees but they appear to be capable of sexual emotion.

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  11. What you’re suggesting is akin to Gita ka saarth – karmanya vaadhika raste – laudable, yet difficult to implement. Sigh! I have to admit though that despite my very low expectations from Hindi films (which also limit therefore the number of movies I watch) I still end up getting disappointed. So, go ahead with your resolution – as long as you don’t expect it to insure you against further disappointment :)

    On that note, a very happy 2012, and yes, look forward to reading your insightful reviews!

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  12. IMB, I’m suggesting that Mani either “doesn’t go there” or actively DISCOURAGES his actresses from “going there” and that includes revati in mouna ragam.

    As regards nirosha in Agni Nakshatram I think she proves my theory of the madonna whore thing, rather than contradicts it.(Kartik, the happy go lucky son of wife 2 finds himself a …ho….)

    My suggestion is that there is no place for a sexual interpretation of a mani girl charecter(unless there is some kind of sexual hurt…like rani mukharjee’s charecter in Yuva) women are either the quintessential children(like roja) or fullgrown adults who have repressed their sexual identity to a societal role (like Aishwarya rai in Ravanan) Either way, to achieve identification with his south Indian audience mani actively eschews his charecters having a sexual identity…like its not a drawing room worthy topic…is my opinion(she could have sex but I cannot talk about it…)

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  13. and like I said, I think manisha koirala(dil se/bombay) was the notable exception to this “rule”, , because of what she spontaneously brought in..even Tabu playing rasaathi in iruvar (or Aishwarya rai’s debut role, as interpreted by Santosh sivan’s camera) looked cleaner than mom after her suprabatham and oil bath.

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  14. Forgive my sillyness – can you give me examples of what you have in mind (i.e. from other directors or the roles played by Meena or Trisha you were referring to)? Will give me a better understanding of where you are coming from.

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  15. To contrast:

    revathi doesn’t look like she’s having sex anytime soon.

    here, on the other hand,

    Wanna see pictures my sister took in kashmir on her honeymoon?

    on the other hand,

    we had sex but I felt like I was 40 years old.

    Nagarjuna? he’was like 46 when he shot this …looks like a teenage hunk!

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  16. rameshram: Very subjective , something that you find sisterly might not look like that in another song.

    This for e.g. : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=25T3nmhlMQM

    Given , Revathi is not in “action” in this – doesnt mean she doesnt look sexy or “looks” like wanting to have sex which is sexy in its own way.

    Ungae example selladhe sir.

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  17. Not expecting anything seems to have worked for my 1st Tamil movie for 2012:

    Thanks to Shankar’s efficient “photocopy” job, right down to replicating certain shot compositions from 3 Idiots, Nanban turns out to be eminently watchable. Acting-wise it yields a few pluses (Jeeva and Srikanth are likeable and Vijay for once turns in a performance that DOESN’T have me bolting for the exit) and minuses (did a naturally gifted comedian like Sathyaraj have to channel an atrociously hammy Boman Irani, right down to the annoying lisp?)

    While Omi Vaidhya managed to inject some vulnerability into his insufferable over-achiever, Sathyan just comes across as plain obnoxious. And Ileana’s size zero frame has her looking like everyone’s younger sister.

    2 things that hit my viewing “sweet spot”: A song scene that pokes fun at Shankar’s typically flamboyant picturisations and a mercifully short cameo by the atrocious SJ Suryah that’s perfect for a bathroom break!

    Verdict: Worth your moolah for a lazy wekend view.

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  18. venkatesh,

    I think the point was not about whether YOU wanted to do them, which can , as you say vary from person to person. it’s about hwether they look like they are enthusiastic about wanting to be done…which in mani films, I thought , felt somewhat repressed…

    but you do whoever you want! you have my permission.

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  19. rameshram: ok, I think I get what you perceive as castration.

    An injustice to compare that beautiful scene from Geetanjali to the rather cheap scene Super. Geeta looks pretty much ready to go all the way and very much so in a refined way.

    Revathi in the Chinna Chinna song sequence is ready

    Trisha in AE (she thought about it – at least once here!)

    Eesha in AE – gone there, done that

    Simran in KAnnathil – ready steady go

    Amala in Agni Nathathiram – she’s definitely fantasizing!

    Shalini in Alaipayuthey – no caption necessary

    Aishwarya in Iruvar (towards the end of this clip) – she wants him and doesn;t waste any time.

    Aishwarya in Raavanan – did you see those mirrors and those moves?

    Mani’s heroines are a class apart, both sexually and emotionally. Thank god he doesn’t make them do a kalyanam thaan or appadi podu in his films to demonstrate their capacity to go all the way – that’s no yardstick for anything let alone a measure to demonstrate an intimate human emotion.

    Let us agree to disagree.

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  20. Oh we’re going to have to agree to disagree here, mostly because we are not talking about heroines showing “informed consent” to having sex..Im not accusing mani of censoring sexual feelings of his women, only of repressing them…I guess the word for it is emotional intelligence . I think that is somewhat stilted in a mani heroine…where it might be somwhat more evolved with a different director.

    I think carping about why the clips I posted aren’t “high class” is missing the point. a high class presentation has its place, I’m sure it sells a lot of saris for seemati silks and a lot of jewellery for bhindi jewelers. There is something OTHER than looking like a film your maid servant may want to see, about the clips I posted. I think if you streamed my clips right after your set of mani clips, the difference will show up screaming .

    Now is this (in your opinion ) a desirable trait for people…women ..to have ? we will have to agree to disagree here, but talking about “class” when trying to understand the sexuality of a female character in a film, in my opinion, again is telling of what you look for when you explore sexuality in women. not that I have a problem with your preferences, but I think we are talking at cross purposes here (not agreeing to disagree, but referring to completely different things) …and that can be futile..

    Ok to illustrate MY point here, lets pander to your need for “class” in women.

    Kajol in minsara kanavu.

    Sneha in ennavale

    Kajal Agarwal in magadheera

    Madhubala in Mughal e azam

    nargis: the real thing.

    (when she says “pyar ho gaya” you know what she’s talking about right? its not the intellectuallized High class educated rationalization of “lup”. It’s it.)

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  21. Having said this of course, I only am talking about mani’s VISION for his heroines(and not at all for his “bad girls” , which is somewhat like the kamal saranya intro scene in nayagan) and not the room he allows for a heroine to interpret her role sexily.

    like i said manisha koirala is the exception..

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  22. to illustrate further, Shobana went way beyond her brief and it succeeded wildly beyond anybody ‘s imagination in this song.

    although NOTHING about her character in the film before or after it would give us the idea that she felt anything like this other vice.

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  23. rameshram : “it’s about hwether they look like they are enthusiastic about wanting to be done…”

    Yes , hence the Revathi clip from Mouna Ragam.

    IMB has a whole host of clips further down the chain – How could i have forgotten Amala in Agni Natchathiram ?

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  24. Rameshram – I still think we are talking about the same thing here. I don’t see any repression (as you put it) in Amala, Trisha, Aishwarya or in any of the other examples/clips I shared. It may perhaps be a matter of subtlety – Mani’s heroines are probably at the lower end on that scale when compared to other directors.

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  25. well, Maybe they (mani heroines) are less expressive than with some other directors, but like I said it wasn’t the way a heroine interpreted the role as much as Mani’s thought out vision for the role. it’s like a chick doesn’t get pointers as to what to say, is taken to the brink and left there….to interpret.(that’s classic repression)..which I can see, and maybe you don’t..

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  26. “And yes, it is a matter of personal preference.”

    when it comes to films you don’t have a choice, You can say this about how people talk about your sister. Film crit, which is post facto of the actual filmmaker’s vision the facts are there for everyone to see, in great detail.

    you can still not talk about, if you want, of course.

    Like

  27. poonai kanna moodinda ulagam irundu poiduma enna? ( its the matter of a cat closing its eyes(while stealing milk) and pretending the world went dark).

    Like

  28. Strange coincidence:
    the controversial female film reviewer that I had mentioned in my comments above passed away today.

    Like

  29. (to translate, once you have started discussing sexuality you can’t go hide behind the excuse of squeamishnes or taste. you can say at the outset “I get squeamish discussing this stuff” and I will stop discussing this with YOU. You can’t say “why mani does show everything” and when I point out that there are big unfilled parts in the director’s vision, then claim “oh this is all in bad taste so he doesn’t show these emotions”.

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  30. Rameshram

    To quote you: “once you have started discussing sexuality you can’t go hide behind the excuse of squeamishnes or taste. you can say at the outset “I get squeamish discussing this stuff” and I will stop discussing this with YOU.”

    Me: I don’t get squeemish, to clarify matters. And no, why would I use taste as an excuse?! Believe it or not, people with different taste to yours exist (and by this, I don’t mean class vs mass – just different taste).

    Quote you; ” You can’t say “why mani does show everything” ”

    Me:Why can’t I say that? It’s an opinion.

    Quote you: “and when I point out that there are big unfilled parts in the director’s vision”

    Me: If you feel there are big unfilled parts in the director’s vision, that doesn’t necessarily have to be right or true- it’s what You feel. Which is why I said I would agree to disagree.

    My opinion is that Mani’s heroines are more realistic and have the correct quotient of subtlety (wrt sexuality). I am entitled to this opinion just as you are entitled to your “big unfilled parts” claim – which is why I feel it’s a matter of personal preference because I don’t agree that it is “unfilled” at all.

    Whole point of a discussion is to be able to see both sides of the coin. Not pick a winner. I shall not indulge in this thread anymore as I would have preferred a healthier discussion than the half-baked accusations thrown my way.

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  31. “And no, why would I use taste as an excuse?! Believe it or not, people with different taste to yours exist (and by this, I don’t mean class vs mass – just different taste).”

    and thus you do EXACTLY this: you use taste as an excuse.

    “Why can’t I say that? It’s an opinion.”

    Maybe its a reading comprehension problem(maybe my sentence wasn’t constructed clearly?). that’s not all I said. there’s no point disputing half a sentence. It’s like saying “inspite of the madha koil schoolbell and the anai adischool bell.(fullstop)”

    “I am entitled to this opinion just as you are entitled to your “big unfilled parts” claim – which is why I feel it’s a matter of personal preference because I don’t agree that it is “unfilled” at all.”

    Ths is a bait and switch. its the taste argument couched as if it were a difference in perception. stand up for your beliefs will you!

    “Whole point of a discussion is to be able to see both sides of the coin.”

    not if one side speaks with a forked tongue and keeps insisting that his positions are not really that. If you are making a “taste” argument make it! don’t claim that your taste argument is really a “personal preference of subtlety” thing which is different from “taste” (presumably because you get to “keep” your personal preferences but you have to discuss your “taste”.)

    you are as easy to get a hold of as water.

    ” I would have preferred a healthier discussion than the half-baked accusations thrown my way.”

    how typical of you to say that! :)

    Like

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