12 June 2011

Cinemascope: Shaitan & West is West

My film reviews in the Sunday Guardian this week:

Stylish, dizzying, but this leaves you cold


Director: Bejoy Nambiar
Starring: Kalki Koechlin, Rajat Barmecha, Gulshan Devaiah, Rajeev Khandelwal, Kirti Kulhari, Raj Kumar Yadav.

With Bejoy Nambiar's dizzyingly shot, hypercool Shaitan, Anurag Kashyap (officially a producer here) gets to return to the dark, dystopic universe he first explored in Paanch (2003), which the Censor Board prevented from release. The plot is similar: some youngsters try to make money by staging the kidnapping of the richest kid in the gang, but then things start to go terribly wrong. But Paanch was about hubris, about an insatiable hunger for fame and money leading into the abyss. All that lies at Shaitan's core is a sense of anomie, of a disconnect from reality.

These kids ostensibly go to college, but we never see them there. Instead, we watch edgily as they float from poolside Holi to yacht party in a cocaine-fuelled haze, conducting midnight raids on unsuspecting chemists whom they distract with talk of the perfect condom flavour. They might choose to slum it out sometimes (kyonki "romance midnight buffet mein thodi hai, romance toh bhurji pao mein hai"), but when arrested by a Mumbai cop, are able only to say over and over, like someone in an American TV show: "I want my lawyer". This alienation is taken to its logical extreme by the America-returned Amy/Amrita (Kalki Koechlin), fluctuating so effectively between chilling nonchalance and dead-mother-obsession that you're just waiting for her to go over the edge.

But somehow, when she does, you're not that interested. In fact, the problem is that you never care about anyone. Perhaps the distant gaze is deliberate, but after you've watched KC (Gulshan Devaiah, a revelation) or Tania (Kirti Kulhari) do their thing twice, you're no longer morbidly arrested by them as laboratory specimens, either. Other characters who could have provided an emotional core aren't given a chance: Raj Kumar Yadav as the blustering but wary corrupt cop, or the wonderful Rajeev Khandelwal as the cop with anger issues assigned the kidnapping case, struggling with a half-baked role which doesn't tell us, for example, why he's leaving his wife or why he's suddenly back with her. Like its characters, Shaitan is the sort of film that could have been fascinating, but never quite is.

Sequel manages tricky humour-drama feat

Director: Andy DeEmmony
Starring: Aqib Khan, Om Puri, Linda Bassett, Ila Arun, Sheeba Chaddha

Sequel to the British Asian hit East Is East (1999), West is West reprises the key tension between Pakistani-ness and British-ness that plagued its characters, but exchanges some of its sharp humour for a moving (if occasionally sentimental) take on home and family. It opens in Salford in 1976, with George and Ella (Om Puri and Linda Bassett, both soaring above the script as always) still running their chip shop while struggling to deal with the one child who hasn't flown the coop: the teenaged Sajid (Aqib Khan, memorable). Sajid hates school, where white boys hound him with cries of "Paki" and a supposedly sympathetic teacher first asks him to find Pakistan on a map (Sajid picks Poland) and then gifts him Kipling's Kim.

He also more or less hates his father, whom he holds responsible. After a particularly bad outburst, the stricken George decides to take the boy to Pakistan, hoping that this will somehow settle him down and give him a sense of "who he is".

Initially, of course, Sajid struggles to find his feet, but he's soon exploring the area in the company of the twinkly-eyed Pir Naseem and his slightly wild disciple. It's rapidly clear that it's George who must figure out his relationship to the place – and people – he hasn't returned to in 30 years. As his now-aged first wife (Ila Arun, perfectly cast) says sharply to the now increasingly vulnerable patriarch, "Who is here? George or Jahangir?" Now assailed by guilt about the family he abandoned, George starts to build a house – only to find that they see his return as a threat.

The tightrope between broad humour, family drama and magical childhood travelogue is a tough one to walk, and there are hits and misses – as there are with language: the Jordanian-born English actor Nadeem Sawalha playing the Pir with a distressingly English accent; Sajid and the Pir's boy reading Kim; not to mention George's Punjabi accent lying rather too thickly over his overly-broken working class English. But like the moving scene between George's two wives shows us, sometimes things can transcend language. This film does.

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