The ever-tightening web of news-channel foul play forms the focus of an engrossing melodrama. Plus, a wickedly entertaining desi-Western that pulls its punches.
JAN 31, 2010 – RAM GOPAL VARMA’S RANN OPENS with the sun glowering on a sweltering metropolis. Inside the homes, however, the heat emanates from television, from news channels aboil with sensation mongering (underscored by shivering strings and pounding percussion more suited to the climactic battle in Macbeth). Within a short span, we are thrown amidst a battalion on the rims of the TV-news business – the patriarchal anchor Vijay Malik (Amitabh Bachchan), his smarmy competitor Amrish (Mohnish Bahl), Vijay’s son Jai (Sudeep), Vijay’s son-in-law Naveen (Rajat Kapoor), callow reporter Purab (Riteish Deshmukh), the buffoonish journalist Anand (Rajpal Yadav), go-getting news executive Nalini (Suchitra Krishnamoorthy), and the barbarous politician Mohan Pandey (Paresh Rawal), the vermilion patch on whose forehead resembles a victorious smear of blood after vanquishing a series of opponents. And the first words out of these mouths are invariably overarching opinions on media – about its nature and function, about how news isn’t a communal service anymore but a cutthroat business predicated on TRPs.
As such, some fifteen minutes into the film, my worst fears seemed to crystallise. The moralistic subject matter and the message-ripe promos appeared to indicate fodder more appropriate to the Madhur Bhandarkar stables, which specialise in breeding genetically dumbed-down strains of socially relevant issues that are eventually led to multiplex abattoirs for slaughter. (And indeed, Bhandarkar’s inexplicably feted Page 3 touched on several topics dear to Rann.) Why, I wondered, would a far superior filmmaker like Varma be interested in this past-sell-date material, especially since he’s the last person you’d expect to take up cudgels for any cause? Soon, however, there are hints that this isn’t a story about media so much as one that skirts around it. In a confessional address towards the end, a beleaguered Vijay Malik drones about the misuse of the medium, and I thought the medium he was alluding to was The Media – but turns out he was only referring to India 24×7, his own channel. The milieu does result in pat Bhandarkar-like abstractions, but underneath the unmasking of a public institution, this is a very personal tale.
To say that Rann is about media would be to label The Godfather as being about gangsters – whereas the latter is simply about people (first), who happen to be gangsters (second). And in order to showcase these people in a mythic light, Varma, as he did in Sarkar, leans towards the Godfather template. He restages the dinner-table scene from Sarkar. (Bachchan is still the patriarch at the head of the table, surrounded by an extended family mired in tensions.) A birthday party for Vijay Malik is shaped like the wedding that opened the earlier film, with friends and foes alike showing up to extend wishes, and amidst these celebrations, Jai introduces his girlfriend (Yasmine, played by Neetu Chandra) to his parents. At the very outset, Purab comes off like the boy-scout Michael, the unlikely savior of an empire, just as Naveen appears to take his cues from the traitorous Carlo (another son-in-law who never fully belonged to either the family or the Family). Like the Godfather who refused to countenance lucrative drug dealing, Vijay too is a dinosaur who lives by certain principles, unwilling to truckle down before equally lucrative TRPs.
These parallels could be inadvertent, but there’s nothing indeliberate about Varma’s portrayal of media men as corporate gangsters, and that’s when I saw what could have interested him – the opportunity for another mythical meditation on men at work. (It’s no accident that a song towards the end invokes the chakravyuh, and chants of yada yada hi dharmasya permeate the background.) Regardless of the quality of his recent output, Varma is an entirely necessary presence in our cinematic landscape if only because of his preoccupation with the workplace, a domain traditionally considered masculine, and a far shout from others who’d rather deal with home and heart, those traditionally feminine spaces. Rann is a muscular throwback to the archetypal masala movie (and how fitting that Bachchan, once again, returns as Vijay!) – an update of the David-Goliath template (think Arjun), with Purab invested with the irony of investigating the very men given the job of investigating the wrongs around them.
And yet, this ancient myth is thawed from its amber trappings and hauled to the modern day. The good guys are a distant presence in the first half, and even later, they must share space with their opponents, who dominate the screen. (Bachchan, therefore, is necessarily subdued amidst a spate of attention-grabbing performances, carrying the cross of being a national monument, “poore desh ka maseeha.” He’s attired in stuffy suits that underline his outdatedness in relation to Amrish, who lords over his empire in jeans and sneakers.) Even the final victory of good over evil is Pyrrhic, obtained over great personal loss, and the villains aren’t quite brought to book in a fashion that would satisfy the strictures of the time-honoured black-and-white masala melodrama – their fate is a question mark hovering over our future. This is a morality tale with a conclusion that verges on the amoral.
Varma’s accomplishment in Rann is to transform an entirely predictable outline into an engrossing experience. There are several small moments to savour – Purab being handed a statuette of Ganesha by his girlfriend (Gul Panag) so he won’t be alone in his first day at work, a sheepish Jai lying to his mother that his Muslim girlfriend’s nickname (Yash) is short for Yashodha (instead of Yasmine), or Purab delighting in a word of praise from Vijay Malik, whom he hero-worships. There’s also this director’s unique approach to cinematography, which demolishes traditional concepts of an actor’s all-encompassing “body language” in favour of isolating close-ups of body parts in order to highlight emotion – the eyes of a concerned mother framed atop a television set, or the nervous hands of a son playing with a cigarette lighter. Varma is possibly the only filmmaker who’s as respectful of his environment as of his actors – even walls and furniture help to colour the conflicts of the characters. I don’t know that we want (or need) our films to poke our jaded selves into shocked action, but if it has to be done, this is the way to do it – with fervour and flamboyance. Madhur Bhandarkar would do well to look and learn.
THERE’S NO IMAGE, ONLY SOUND, at the beginning of Abhishek Chaubey’s Ishqiya, as Rekha Bhardwaj, in her inimitably tossed-off style, hums Ab mujhe koi intezaar kahan. A few phrases later, the black screen begins to brighten, and our eyes descend on Krishna (Vidya Balan) – a Reclining Venus (even if fully clad), a vision that’s woman from top to toe, from the slightest curve of breast to the generous swell of hips to the endless taper of legs. Much later in the film, when Khalujaan (Naseeruddin Shah) exclaims that Krishna is a frustrating amalgam of pari and tawaif, it’s this Madonna-whore picture that pops into mind, at once chaste and carnal, and lit by the afterglow of lovemaking. It wouldn’t come as a revelation if Chaubey intended the mobile suspended from a car’s rear-view mirror – the figure is of Eve, the fig-leaf Temptress – as an homage to Krishna, hinting at the ways she will tempt both Khalujaan and Babban (Arshad Warsi).
These initial frames are about physical love, though Ishqiya is about love in all its shapes and forms, with its power to reduce grown-ups to slobbering infants (evinced in the lyrics of the marvellous Dil to bachcha hai ji, composed by Vishal Bhardwaj). There’s the scampish, fraternal (or, as some would have us believe, homoerotic) Jai-Veeru brand of love between Khalujaan and Babban. (Shah and Warsi play wonderfully off each other, suggesting a sustained history of jolly disreputability.) There’s the unilateral attraction smouldering between Khalujaan and Krishna. There’s the primal, need-fulfilling love that leads to Krishna cutting Babban’s thumb and instantly sucking on it. (To no one’s surprise, they subsequently tumble into bed.) There’s the nostalgic love that Khalujaan harbours for a mysterious woman from the past, whose sepia-tinted photograph rests in his wallet.
Finally, there’s the bordering-on-crazy love symbolised by a Taj Mahal locket, the ceaseless yearning for a lover beyond the grave – the sort of love that’s sought in the folds of a blanket of an unmade bed in the lover’s absence, the type of love that necessitates the pasting of press clippings (reporting the lover’s death) on the makeshift shrine of one’s wall, the kind of love so explosive that it (literally) scorches the skin. Ishqiya is yet another desi Western from (producer) Bhardwaj’s stable – it’s set in the sand-brushed bylanes of Gorakhpur – and Krishna is a loose updating of the Claudia Cardinale character from Once Upon a Time in the West, the widow who wills herself to bed with strangers in order to get at what’s important. There’s a degree of crafty craziness needed to embody Krishna, and I’m not sure Vidya Balan has it. Hers is a refined, soothing presence that comes with delicate line readings, and though she looks the part and acts the part, we don’t hear the part when she opens her mouth. (She renders Badi dheere jali raina, a howl from the heart if there ever was one, with expressions more appropriate to a tranquil bhajan.) The film hinges on a good performer trapped in an ill-suited role.
The other aspect that drags down Ishqiya is its over-reliance on colour. In order to differentiate Khalujaan from Babban, Chaubey usefully employs Hindi film music from an older era. Khalujaan sways to Tumhein dekhti hoon to lagta hai from Tumhare Liye – he knows that the composer is Jaidev, and he nods appreciatively at “Lata bai’s” singing. And in stark contrast to this streetside connoisseur is the earthy Babban, who shakes his hips to Dhanno ki aankhon mein in a whorehouse. (Trust a Vishal Bhardwaj production to tip a hat to Gulzar!) But the effect is that of overkill when Chaubey introduces Khalujaan and Babban dancing drunk to Ajeeb dastaan hai yeh, when Babban and Krishna get naughty with Dekha to tujhe yaar dil mein baji guitar, and when a kinky seduction scene is underscored by Aa jaane jaan from Inteqaam. Chaubey is so much in love – yes, he too cannot escape his film’s overriding emotion – with his detours into the uncharted and the forbidden (lip-locks, cusswords, an overdetermined strain of the eccentric) that there are times the loosely shaped Ishqiya comes close to being all colour and flavour and little else.
Yes, these are colours and flavours we do not see or smell in the spit-shined urban multiplex movie, but how far in the other direction will we travel before beginning to demand that a film have more to it than just these colours and flavours? On a basic level, Ishqiya is extremely entertaining, and yet, it’s hard to shake off the suspicion that it could have been so much more given its initial promise about a refreshingly adult approach to love, an emotion that has been infantilised by most of our filmmakers. Taken as what it is, however, this is an impressive first feature. Chaubey skillfully outlines a serious plot – a crazy quilt patched together from kidnappings, caste wars, arms trading and unresolved love triangles – with featherlight brushstrokes, and he orchestrates stretches featuring wonderful characters (the little boy who joins the army, the old woman with a torch) and writing, with lines so steeped in local hues that they come off as coarse poetry. (“Aaj kal nange hain ke burqe mein?” is how Babban enquires if someone is free or in prison.) I was especially taken by the offhand development where Khalujaan drops his cell phone in a melee and is unable to contact Babban and Krishna, which results in the latter discovering, in each other, hints of possible compatibility. Love can spring from the strangest of circumstances, Chaubey says, and we nod in helpless recognition.
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