1 May 2011

Cinemascope: I Am; Shor in the City

This week's Sunday Guardian film review column:

Director: Onir
Starring: Juhi Chawla, Nandita Das, Manisha Koirala, Sanjay Suri, Rahul Bose

Ambitious & unusual, filled with taut acting

Onir's I Am is an ambitious and unusual film, both in form and content. It consists of four independent tales, the only link between them being that a minor character in each segment becomes the protagonist in the next. In 'I Am Afia', a woman (Nandita Das) recently divorced from her two-timing husband decides to have a baby on her own. In the next tale, Megha (Juhi Chawla), a successful young Kashmiri Pandit woman, returns to Srinagar to sell her childhood home. In the third, a young documentary filmmaker called Abhimanyu (Sanjay Suri) tries to come to grips with a traumatic childhood, while 'I Am Omar' is about a harrowing night in the life of a gay man (Rahul Bose).

I Am could easily have sunk under the weight of the many disparate "issues" it seeks to address: single motherhood, political and religious conflict, child sexual abuse, queerness. And it does sometimes feel a little too deliberate, like a nice guy who takes himself too seriously. On the whole, though, Onir has managed to craft a film that is moving without becoming maudlin, thought-provoking without being bombastic. It is also well acted. Manisha and Juhi turn in astonishingly taut performances as childhood friends who meet after 20 years in a context riven with guilt, resentment and loss. Bose and Arjun Mathur are very good, too; Bose in particular playing the middle-aged corporate not-out-to-his-parents gay man with a perfect blend of cageyness and nonchalance, vulnerability and outrage.

The dialogue strives to sound natural and largely succeeds, in no small part because characters are allowed to move freely between languages as Indians do in real life: English, Hindi, Bengali, Marathi, Kashmiri and Kannada all appear. Arvind Kannabiran's cinematography is superb: in the Kolkata sequence where Nandita looks at men on the Metro, but most noticeably in the Srinagar section, where his sharp-eyed, almost documentary technique brings to life a city beleaguered by barbed wire and bunkers, an urban milieu that feels unnaturally slow, dull, as if arrested in time by the country that holds it in a stifling embrace.

Director: Raj Nidimoru, Krishna DK
Starring: Tusshar Kapoor, Sendhil Ramamurthy, Nikhil Dwivedi, Pitobash Tripathi

Luminous look  at  dark underbelly of Mumbai


Raj Nidimoru and Krishna DK, directors of 2009's smart-alecky and somewhat disappointing 99, have made an absolutely terrific film this time around. Three narratives unfold against the vivid backdrop of 11 days of Ganesh Chaturthi in Mumbai, somehow remaining quite separate while simultaneously coming together to constitute a sharply-etched portrait of the city. Three young men (including a new and improved Tushhar Kapoor and the brilliantly manic Pitobash) make money by pirating bestselling novels, sometimes even kidnapping the author in the bargain; a watchful, good-looking NRI (Sendhil Ramamurthy) attempts to start afresh in India, but is haunted by goons who insist that he hire them for 'protection'; an unemployed young cricketer struggles to catch the eye of the selectors while his girlfriend fields an unending barrage of suitable boys. Not only does Shor juggle this vast cast with enviable control, it also manages to give every character, no matter how minor, their one minute of fame. So the old security guard, fading after a bank hijacking wound, says to his rescuer, "Pehle paise vault mein rakh do", while the printing press man dismisses missing pages with a "Poora book kaun padhta hai sahib?". The women may not have a lot of screentime, but they are certainly memorable. The NRI's model girlfriend asking a taxi driver for a cigarette while he looks on in admiration, or the brilliant Radhika Apte, who plays Tusshar's wife announcing to her gobsmacked husband that she can actually read the books that he struggles to: these are characters superbly conceived.

This is the city's gritty underbelly, but with plenty of humour and a lot of heart. It's a world where young cons stumble upon a bomb in a local train and decide to try it out for themselves; where men who organise political rallies moonlight as arms dealers, and do the deal just like it's a property transaction: "Party tayyaar hai, maal ready hai kya?". Think Kaminey without the pointless machismo, and with a lighter touch. Watch it.

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