Review: Short Kut – The Con is On

Posted on July 11, 2009


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A dreadful satire of the film industry is symptomatic of everything that’s wrong with our mainstream cinema.

JUL 12, 2009 – ONE OF THE THINGS YOU’RE SOMETIMES asked as a critic is how you know if a film is any good. How do you decide when to tear a film apart from limb to sorry limb, and when you’re going to give it a considered appraisal, even if that appraisal may end up unfavorable? One of my rules of thumb is simply that a good movie – or even one that isn’t very good but at least shows signs of an attempt at making something good – draws you in. You give it some 10-15 minutes to set up its rules, its atmosphere, its conceits, and if, consequently, you’re buying into what it’s selling, then some thought has gone into it, some effort has been expended on it. You can feel it in your gut, when a film has been made with a respect for the craft and the consumer.

In such cases, the “mistakes” you find are either a result of personal taste – namely, I may not care for an actor, or a certain style of staging – or perhaps the filmmaker has slipped up along the way, either because funds weren’t available, or the right cast wasn’t obtainable, or he was too locked into his own vision, or he was forced to engineer a compromise between his artistry and the arm-twisting of the marketplace, or he was a first-timer and couldn’t quite control this kind of production. Whatever the excuse, when such a film doesn’t entirely work for you, there’s no reason for condescension. All you need to know (and feel) is that (a) someone tried, and (b) your time was respected. That’s really all it takes for me to begin thinking along the lines of a considered appraisal.

There are icky offshoots to this approach, of course. You could ask, “What about the audience, to many of whom the only consideration is entertainment, the satisfaction of money well spent?” I cannot disagree. I suppose that’s when you stop reading me and pick a critic who thinks accordingly, and I suppose there are going to be critics who think Neeraj Vora’s Short Kut – The Con is On (based on the Malayalam blockbuster Udayananu Tharam) is worth a look. I don’t. I think it deserves to be torn apart from limb to sorry limb, but because it’s so symptomatic of practically everything that’s wrong with our mainstream cinema today, I’ve decided to take it (somewhat) seriously and give it a (somewhat) considered appraisal. The short version, however, is this: As a satire of the film industry, as comedy, as occasional drama, this is a disaster on just about every level.

For a film industry that congratulates itself on making “musicals,” how have we gotten to a point where song sequences are so excruciating to endure? The only decent contribution from an otherwise pallid Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy score is Kal nau baje, where the hero and heroine implore each other to glance at the moon in unison, and thus have their gaze united, their eyes locked. As romantic proclamations go, it may not be Abhi na jaao chhod kar, but it will do. What won’t do, however, is the way this song is realised – in some eye-blindingly beautiful beachside, with the heroine posturing as if on a catwalk, with miles of red fabric billowing behind her, and the hero on a raft as if posing for a GQ shoot. Where is the romance any longer? Are we supposed to tune in to the love between hero and heroine, or the one between cinematographer and location?

If our only solution to every song situation is to cut away to irrelevant fantasy interludes, why even bother? This isn’t the 60s, where we hadn’t yet begun to leave our homes (leave alone shores), so when Raj Kapoor dazzled us with Technicolor European decadence in Sangam, we lapped it up with gratitude and glee. Who, today, needs song sequences that throw you so completely out of the moment, out of the movie – especially when the characters, at that point, are living in the humblest of Mumbai chawls? Why do we continue to pursue serious subjects if we do not have the stomach to make appropriately serious movies? New York, first, reduced its complex issues to bite-sized morsels dispensed by acting eye-candy, and here we have, in the guise of biting film-industry satire, a succession of dramatic developments that are dissipated in the quest for comedy.

We have a golden-goose actress (Amrita Rao) exploited by her family, a filmmaker of integrity (Akshaye Khanna) forced to sell his soul, and a struggler (Arshad Warsi) so desperate that he’ll steal a script from a friend if it’ll make him a star – but how will any of this register if the focus is solely on how to make every scene ha-ha funny? (If you’re looking for an idea about the level of humour, when Arshad Warsi is asked by an acting coach to name the nau ras, he comes up with “Aam ras, mosambi ka ras…” The bigger joke, however, may be that Akshaye gets to spout about Stanislavski and how “Acting is reacting,” when he hasn’t headlined a decent film in what appears to be a decade.) Couldn’t Vora have taken a look at the early Priyadarshan comedies to see how desperation can be mined for dark laughs?

And finally, when are we going to realise that scenes and characters do not exist in isolation, solely for the sake of instantaneous impact, and that there needs to be a steadily plotted emotional graph? Question: Why do Akshaye and Amrita move, after marriage, from the chawl to a ridiculously well-appointed home, with arty artifacts dotting every corner? Answer: Because we need a situation that requires him to feel frustrated about not making enough money. (Couldn’t a similar end have been achieved by having him stay in the chawl and have an emergency break over his head?) As a result, nothing registers – everything comes off like high comedy (of the unintended kind). In the scene where chawl residents decide to chip in and finance Akshaye’s movie, each individual gets up to declare, “Main bhi producer,” like how those slaves in ancient Rome rose up in a chain of “I am Spartacus” declarations.

The chawl being a microcosm of the underprivileged, you should have had a lump in your throat during this moment of supreme self-sacrifice. Instead, you roll your eyes and recall the exquisite delicacy with which Luck By Chance took on the film industry. That film is a reminder that not all mainstream cinema is hollow, that there are still artists and visionaries, both old and new – but they take so long between films that most mainstream product bears little relation to their work. The lowest blow in Short Kut, to me, was when Arshad Warsi, in anticipation of sex, sprinkles rose petals on a bed, puts champagne in a bucket of ice, and launches leeringly into Do sitaron ka zameen par hai milan, from Kohinoor – in a trice, “do sitaron” has been reduced to two cinema stars, and “milan” has been reduced to a romp in the sack. If you can’t help us make new movie memories, can’t you at least keep from desecrating the old ones we’ve hoarded so carefully inside our heads?

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Posted in: Cinema: Hindi