Review: Mumbai Meri Jaan / Phoonk

Posted on August 23, 2008


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The 7/11 Mumbai blasts form the backdrop for an uneven drama that’s redeemed by several powerful moments. Plus, a cheerfully trashy scare movie.

AUG 24, 2008 – PERHAPS THE ONLY WAY TO LOOK AT A FILM bookended by red roses – it begins with a wreath; it ends with a man extending a single bloom – is as a romance. And with its title reminiscent of a roadside Romeo’s call to his beloved, Nishikant Kamat’s Mumbai Meri Jaan is, first and foremost, a love story between a city and its inhabitants, with the 2006 train blasts proving to be the villain who threatens to tear the lovers apart. When you love someone, the reasons aren’t always logical, and they almost always have to do more with the heart than the head. And others – non-Mumbaikars, in this case – cannot begin to fathom the extent of this love, because being in love is one thing, and hearing about someone being in love quite another. That’s why, I feel, the good people of Mumbai will respond best to this fictional imagining of the days that followed 7/11. They will be the ones who will overlook its faults and open their hearts to it – while the rest of us, to whom this is just a movie, will not be able to be quite as forgiving.

Because for the rest of us, this love is not a given. It has to be communicated in a manner that’s affecting and convincing – and that’s something Kamat’s film doesn’t quite manage all the time. If we experience a lump in the throat as Rafi launches into Ae dil, mushkil, jeena yahaan, it’s because of our associations with the song, the singer, the movie, the era of filmmaking – but when a Mumbaikar hears this number, as it plays over the end credits, the effect is surely that of listening to a serenade. And how can we compete with that extent of emotion, which is possibly so overpowering that the fact that this song isn’t really an ode to the resilience of Mumbai, as it is implied here, is least relevant? That it is about Mumbai (or Bombay, according to the song) is all that’s important. So too the terror of a series of bombings that crippled the train services, the lifeline of the city – how could those of us to whom this is an abstract, faraway horror begin to understand its implications and its resonances in a population to whom these trains are a concrete, everyday reality?

And therefore, Mumbai Meri Jaan is destined to play as two movies – a deeply moving drama (by default) to the people of Mumbai, and, for the others, a film that succeeds on several counts but is constrained by its incessant warm-fuzziness and its underlying implication that the solutions to the problems that face us are just a group hug away. (And, needless to say, had Kamat been able to pull it all off, we would all have seen the same movie.) This is a film where some truly great writing (in terms of dialogue and character) has been squandered on alarmingly simple-minded screenplay contrivances – or, perhaps, the right way to look at it would be that some alarmingly simple-minded screenplay contrivances have, thankfully, been bettered with truly great writing. What is it with films that deal with tragedies in Mumbai – like, well, Bombay – that they end with such blatantly positive messages of hope, leaving you with the feeling of watching someone attempt to cure AIDS with a bottle of cough syrup? Let’s hold hands and the world will be a better place – that seems to be the takeaway from Mumbai Meri Jaan as well.

The problem isn’t the message itself – and much as I loathe messages in movies, I realise that it isn’t always such a bad thing to come away with a few positive thoughts – but with the all-too-convenient manner in which these platitudes are put across, as if peace and harmony were merely a state of rosy health that could be attained with a timely injection of hope and goodwill. Sometimes, it isn’t the bad movies that frustrate you, but the good ones that do not go after the greatness that is so within reach. Mumbai Meri Jaan tracks the stories of five people affected by the blasts – the programmatically drawn characters played by Kay Kay Menon, Soha Ali Khan, Paresh Rawal, Irrfan Khan and Madhavan; each represents a microcosmic cross-section of the city – either directly, because they were in or near the trains, or indirectly, because, well, they belong to Mumbai, and this villainous act has sown seeds of doubt in their minds about the long-term viability of their relationship with the city they love. The film is about the ripples set off by a senseless tragedy – and had it simply dealt with how the victims cope, it could have been a moving little gem.

Unfortunately, Mumbai Meri Jaan wants to offer solutions – in the form of idealistic change-your-heart banalities, which undo a lot of the genuinely complex good work done earlier. The same wish-fulfillment scenarios might have succeeded in a simpler, simplistic film, but with something this oblique and ambitious, these instant fix-it suggestions appear laughably tacked on, as if the producer warned Kamat, “I gave you the funds to make the film you want. Now go make some adjustments so that it will also be the movie that the average moviegoer (or awards jury) would want.” Someone who sets off a bomb-scare panic in the city’s malls, with a series of prank calls, is shown the error of his ways when he sees one of the mall-goers clutch at his weak heart in the midst of a stampede to escape to safety. Someone who’s toying with thoughts of emigrating to the US is reminded of 9/11, of how tourists used to come to see the Twin Towers, whereas now they come to see Ground Zero. (All this, while the background is filled with meditative chants, as if the very secret of the scriptures were being demystified in order to steady the vacillations of this man in doubt.)

To see why these developments are so disappointing, you have to see how these developments came to be. The person who’s thinking of emigrating is a chance survivor of the blasts. But for a lucky accident, he might have ended up dead – and this hairline escape has severely unsettled him and instilled a deep sense of paranoia. Kamat gives us a beautiful scene in which this character’s pregnant wife berates him after he returns home, that he couldn’t be bothered to make a single call and inform her that he was okay. And he’s still in a daze, as if thoughts of his wife and his unborn child and his parents who live with him can wait – and all he can think of, for the moment, is how close he was to being reduced to a mass of mangled limbs, like some of the other passengers on his train. He becomes so paranoid about boarding trains that he begins to take taxis to work – and we get a haunting image of the taxi running parallel to the tracks, with him staring out of the window at the rattling death trap that’s hurtling past. He’s shifted his allegiance from one mode of transportation to another, and the way he feels, it appears that it’s just a small step before he switches allegiance from one country to another.

And when these unspoken half-thoughts coagulate into vulgar spoken dialogue – as in that speech about 9/11, which reminds him that No Country Is Entirely Safe – it’s a shock. And it’s equally shocking that the delicate textures of Mumbai Meri Jaan transform, without warning, into a finger-wagging Madhur Bhandarkar movie – the kind that pounds us with its insights that rich people and television companies are bad, bad, bad. Soha Ali Khan’s story suffers the most due to this change in tone. She plays a television reporter who heartlessly thrusts a mike in front of the faces of people who’ve just suffered a tragedy, and don’t you know, she’s soon reduced to a tragic figure herself, now facing a heartlessly thrust mike in front of her face. These childish retributory mechanisms come off as third-rate television drama, filled with “touches” like the auspicious redness of a wedding card being contrasted with the gloomy black of a silhouette of a woman who’s lost her fiancé. Mumbai Meri Jaan is at its worst when it addresses the plight of those directly affected by the blasts, the ones at the epicentre.

And it’s at its best while tackling the characters who are only feeling the aftershocks. Irrfan Khan gets a marvellous story arc that’s borderline irresponsible – but the reason it works so well, at least till it’s time for him to realise The Error Of His Ways, is the realisation that tragedies of this magnitude do not always result in reactions of hushed, respectful mourning. There are going to be those who exploit these unsettling times for their own little kicks. The portions with Paresh Rawal (who plays a cop on the verge of retirement) and Vijay Maurya (who’s a newbie on the force) are also wonderful. The scene that made the film, for me, is the one where these policemen stumble upon Kay Kay, who’s drunk and whose anger towards a community has made him target a poor old Muslim who’s wheeling a cycle at night. Kay Kay asks him what he’s carrying, and when the older man replies that it’s just pav, he snatches a bun and bites into it and asks sarcastically if it won’t explode once inside his stomach, “Pet mein jaayega to phatega to nahin?”

And when the cops arrive at the scene and warn Kay Kay that he’s out of line, he insults them and runs away. Maurya gives chase, gives up, and turns, in frustration, to Irrfan, who’s been a silent spectator all along. And for no reason, he is commanded to perform sit-ups, like an errant student in a classroom in a village. With this, Kamat shows us the cycle of violence, of revenge – of wanting to get even with the one who’s readily at hand, if not the one who’s really responsible. And this idea is movingly brought full circle when, later on, Rawal instructs Kay Kay on a variation of the Gandhi-ism that an eye for an eye only ends up in a world gone blind. It’s moments like these when Mumbai Meri Jaan stands still and shines, content to be a movie rather than a moral science lesson. And despite the potential for touchy-feeliness in this speech, Rawal puts it across so beautifully, your eyes tear up at his innocent conviction. There are a lot of strong performances here – from Maurya, Madhavan, Kay Kay, Irrfan – but this is a Rawal showcase all the way through. Just watch him tear into a series of extraordinarily crafted speeches – about the time he nabbed a big shot who was carrying cocaine and had to let him go; about the time, as a child, he stole a teacher’s spectacles; about his remorse at not having a single major accomplishment in all his years of service – and you’ll sense the hunger of a performer who’s been too long denied. For all the explosions in the film – literal and otherwise – the sound you come away remembering is the satisfied burp of an actor who’s finally had his fill.

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NOTHING, JUST NOTHING, ESCAPES Ram Gopal Varma’s malevolent gaze in the black magic thriller Phoonk. Soft toys, calendar art, religious icons, felled branches by the roadside – just about everything on screen is transformed into a shamanistic fetish object, intended to spook the daylights out of a gleefully complicit audience. Part B-movie, part boo-movie, Phoonk is the silliest thing Varma has attempted in years – never mind all his grandstanding about how this is actually a debate on Science versus Superstition – but that very sleaziness is, strangely, the film’s strength. Scary movies usually lull you into a state of deceptive calm and then let loose their jack-in-the-box shocks, but with Varma’s signature style in the forefront – all that jarring background music, all that snaking camerawork – there’s not a moment of quiet, and your nerves are jangly from start to finish.

This alone would fulfill the expectations of a lot of people – but because we hold Varma to a higher standard, let’s recall the far classier Bhoot, of which I wrote at the time, “And there’s so much quietness, the sudden rainfall sounds like gunfire and the buzz of the calling bell makes your heart stop.” The understated elegance of that film is nowhere in sight here. Phoonk appears deliberately calculated to percolate down to every single member of the audience – the promotional line could well have been: “Look, Ram Gopal Varma can make a movie that will draw large numbers to the theatres” – and it doesn’t trust us to put two and two together. There’s a ton of drearily clumsy exposition built around Rajeev’s (Sudeep) scientific temperament. He refuses to accept that the trials that befall his daughter (Ahsaas Channa) could be a function of the occult – and it’s hard to believe that this is what Varma was referring to when he said his film was going to trigger debates among supporters and scoffers.

The other problem with Phoonk is that it doesn’t possess an iota of mystery. (There could be spoilers ahead.) From the minute we see Ashwini Kalsekar (who pitches her performance at such a decibel, it can be heard from the moon) with her black-crescent forehead markings and her inebriated witch’s cackle, we know she’s somehow responsible for the child’s plight. Having referenced The Exorcist in the image of a relic being unearthed during an excavation, I kept hoping that Varma would also channel that film’s stomach-churning atmosphere of domestic dread – of what could happen when someone you love is suffering from something beyond your control. But we don’t share Rajeev’s abject helplessness, because we know that his daughter’s condition isn’t due so much to a nameless horror as a shamelessly hammy actress. But as the film progresses, you see that, had Kalsekar been reined in, she’d have been a misfit – for everything around her is equally over the top. And with that in mind, it’s easier to buy into the realisation that Phoonk was never going to add up to anything more than a couple of hours of trashy scares.

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Posted in: Cinema: Hindi