SPICE RAJA, TANDOORI RANI
DEC 4, 2008 – I EXPECTED THE FILMS HERE TO BE REVEALING in ways I never expected, sure, but considering that it featured a Hinglish song sequence, with lyrics along the lines of, “I am your spice raja, you are my tandoori rani,” Tandoori Love managed to surpass my wildest non-expectations. Director Oliver Paulus clearly caught a couple of our worst naach-gaana romances, and, after a hearty chuckle, he clearly went, “Oh, those crazee Indians, always singing and dancing.” And so, apparently, he’s decided to fashion a love triangle in Switzerland (insert meta nod here, this being the Mecca of foreign locations for Bollywood productions) that even includes a song where the lovelorn heroine roams the streets, imaging that every other face belongs to the man she’s pining for. That this man is played by Vijay Raaz offers the only ounce of comfort in an otherwise distressingly slight culture-clash romantic comedy.
VIJAY RAAZ GOT HIS SECOND FESTIVAL OUTING IN Raja Menon’s tightly narrated Barah Aana, the story of three have-nots (Raaz, Naseeruddin Shah, Arjun Mathur) who decide to make life better for themselves by extorting money from the haves. Another film would have made this audience-pleasing David-getting-the-better-of-Goliath business the centre of its attention, lavishing its energies on tickling our most subversive wish-fulfillment fantasies, but Menon devotes an entire hour (of his hour-and-a-half film) to simply letting his leads breathe. By opting for character over contrivance, detail over plot dynamics – the get-rich-quick scheme the trio dreams up appears almost an afterthought – Barah Aana develops as much into a special kind of wryly observed social drama (that, thankfully, doesn’t bludgeon us with its thesis points) as an opportunity for its superb leads to flex their chops. Watch Raaz graduate from bidi-maachis to cigarettes and lighters, watch his corresponding amplification in swagger, and then wonder why we see so little of this marvellous actor these days, even in the multiplexes.
WITH THE FESTIVAL BEGINNING TO WIND DOWN, it was no surprise to see a few theatres practically empty during screenings (like that of Ghatak’s Subarnarekha, but then most cinephiles have probably checked this one off their lists). The long, winding lines for KP Kumaran’s Akasha Gopuram, therefore, were a heartening sign that this much-buzzed-about Malayalam adaptation of Ibsen’s The Master Builder was indeed going to be something special. Imagine the disappointment, then, when the film turned out to be a literal, static and extremely stagy affair, with little effort at transforming a piece of theatre into cinema. Kumaran appears so enamoured by his source, his reverence is manifest in lines that don’t seem to have been translated so much as transliterated, with no sense of place or period. It was depressing to see this cast of heavyweights (led by a curiously leaden Mohanlal) flounder about, attempting to make the best of an impossible situation, though any film with the sense to cast Bharat Gopi deserves at least an iota of credit.
AND IT WAS FINALLY THERE, THE CLOSING CEREMONY to which I somehow wangled a ticket. News had already leaked out about the winners, and the efficacy of the grapevine was confirmed when Malini Fonseka did walk away with a special jury prize, for her wonderful performance in Akasa Kusum. The ceremony, therefore, was totally without surprises. Even the speeches by various dignitaries conformed tightly to pre-written scripts, versions of which we’ve heard endlessly over the years, and the only moment I sat up was when Chief Guest Kamal Hassan somehow worked “equipoise” into his address to the audience. Subsequently, Majid Majidi’s The Song of Sparrows closed the festival, and it was a typically Chaplinesque entry from this Iranian master of minimalist manipulation. Humour and pathos come together seamlessly in this story of yet another little man losing something of value and spending the rest of the film trying to regain it. If its easy familiarity made The Song of Sparrows a somewhat unspectacular way to end a fortnight of films, at least people walked home happy, and who’s to say that’s not a function of the cinema.
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