8 April 2010

Film Review - Well Done Abba

When Truth Turns Trite


RATING >> * *

SHYAM BENEGAL has spent a great deal of his directorial life representing the Indian village on screen. His latest offering, a rural comedy, marks the distance he’s travelled from the intensely realist critique of patriarchy and caste in Ankur (1974), Nishant (1975) or the equally trenchant Samar (1999).

It isn’t that Benegal can’t do — or hasn’t done — comedy. But the broad buffoonery and lame jokes of Well Done Abba make one ache for the nuanced black humour of Mandi (1983) — where the travails of a house full of prostitutes formed the focus of a marvellous satire about politics and middle class morality. Or at least for the warmly humanist humour of Welcome to Sajjanpur (2008), which managed to woo urban multiplex audiences into a rural cinescape, and whose success Benegal is clearly trying to recreate. Unfortunately, Sajjanpur’s already stagey village and deliberately stock characters, now transported from north India to the Dakhani Urdu-speaking regions of Andhra Pradesh that Benegal knows well, dissolve completely into caricature here.

The main narrative — about the super-sincere Armaan Ali (Boman Irani), whose attempt to build a well on his own land under a government BPL loan scheme is thwarted by the system — might even have been alright on its own. But it is forcibly tethered to the unfunny shenanigans of Rehmaan Ali (Armaan’s beimaan twin, also played by Boman) and his wife (an irritating Ila Arun) and a saccharine-sweet romance between Armaan’s perky daughter Muskaan (Minissha Lamba doing a decent Preity-Zinta-lite) and local mechanic Arif. The lack of nuance with which issue after issue is dealt with is disappointing — the sarkari ad-like reference to the RTI Act, the appallingly flat subplot about poor Muslim girls being married off to Arab Sheikhs, the fact that Arif must be shown to be of indeterminate religious background to establish secular credentials. Benegal attempts simplicity but only achieves simplisticness.

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 7, Issue 14, Dated April 10, 2010

3 April 2010

Thanks Maa - Film Review

Children Of The Underbelly

RATING >> * * 1/2

MOVIES STARRING CHILDREN in central roles can be difficult to pull off. Kids may tug at the audience’s heartstrings, but that directorial advantage — of being able to pull the viewer in with ease — comes with the danger of tipping over into maudlin territory.

Thanks Maa begins shakily, with a confusing title sequence that cuts between a nervous burqa-clad woman so distracted by her husband’s crankiness that she endangers their crawling baby, and street kids stealing a wallet under the pretext of polishing shoes. Debutant director Irfan Kamal seems to be setting the viewer up for an oddly overcooked morality tale, pitched somewhere between Amar Akbar Anthony and Boot Polish, with neither the zany humour of one nor the emotional kick of the other. Thankfully, Kamal recovers swiftly. Initial caricatures (like the bug-eyed seth from Surat) and amateurish acting are forgotten when we meet the film’s real subjects: a charming bunch of street urchins named Soda, Municipality, Cutting, Sursuri and Shana. Shams Patel’s star turn as the twelve-year-old Municipality Ghatkopar (named for the place where he was found as a baby) has garnered a National Award for Best Child Actor, but his co-actors’ performances are pitch-perfect too — fluctuating between jaded cynicism and wide-eyed vulnerability. Among the adults, mention must be made of Alok Nath and Ranvir Shorey's superb cameos as the smarmy head of a juvenile home and a nervous middle class husband, respectively.

The narrative centres on Municipality’s discovery of an abandoned infant and his determined effort to trace its mother, who he is convinced is grief-stricken and waiting to be reunited with it. The film teeters on the brink of a Madhur Bhandarkar-like sensational excess, but Kamal and cinematographer Ajayan Vincent use Municipality’s journey as an opportunity to shoot a magnificently varied set of urban locales. That old Mumbai cliché, the Ganesh Chaturthi festival, is captured afresh and memorably, but the camera also manages to make us see a strange and startling beauty everywhere — in the hill-like slums of Parkside, Vikhroli, in the surreal space of a BPO as seen by a street child. That, in itself, is a remarkable achievement.

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 7, Issue 11, Dated March 20, 2010