30 October 2011

Cinemascope: Harishchandrachi Factory; Ra.One

Manufacturing joy
Director: Paresh Mokashi
Starring: Nandu Madhav, Vibhawari Deshpande, Atharva Karve


Dhundiraj Govind Phalke's life would be considered a remarkable one even if he was not credited with having made the first-ever Indian motion picture. The son of a Sanskrit pandit from Trimbakeshwar, Phalke was a young man with an unquenchable thirst for the new. At 15, he went to Bombay to study at the JJ School of Art. After several more years at Baroda's Kala Bhawan, he started a small photography studio in Godhra. Soon after this, he apprenticed himself to a German magician called Carl Hertz, who had been employed by the Lumiere Brothers. He then worked as a draftsman with the Archaeological Survey of India before entering the printing business: specialising in lithographs and oleographs, working for artist Raja Ravi Varma, even visiting Germany to learn more about the technology.

Sometime around now, Phalke watched his first moving picture, The Life of Christ. Struck by the possibility of making an Indian film where it would be Indian gods who flickered into life on screen, he sold his stake in the printing press and embarked on what was to be his most ambitious project yet. Harishchandrachi Factory focuses on this section of Phalke's life, showing us a man both eccentric and driven. Marathi theatre director Paresh Mokashi gives us a film whose finely-tuned sense of the tragicomic is reminiscent of Chaplin and Jacques Tati. Phalke is introduced in a black top hat doing magic tricks for delighted children, only to actually disappear when an angry debtor shows up. We laugh, but there's a sense that we could cry instead. We see a grieving wife and neighbours and prepare for the worst, but they're mourning a cupboard Phalke has sold off. Even his temporary blindness in 1912 is not off-limits for laughter: as Phalke lies there with eyes bandaged, someone says with mock gravity, "Your eyes will get cured – what shall we do about your mind?"

Mokashi extracts superb performances from his cast, especially Nandu Madhav as the irrepressible Phalke, Vibhavari Deshpande as his wife, and the child actors. The 'period feel' goes much beyond the slightly low-grade costumes and sets: one comes away thinking about modernity's transformation of everything, from technology to caste and the marital relationship.

(Harishchandrachi Factory is playing at PVR Director's Cut in New Delhi this week).

A bad Hollywood film
Director: Anubhav Sinha
Starring: Shah Rukh Khan, Kareena Kapoor, Arjun Rampal


The best thing about Ra.One, depending on the different people I've asked, is a) the kid (Armaan Verma): though truthfully, it's not him but his large Beatle-ish mop of hair; b) the spectacle of Bombay's VT Station cracking up into magnificent ruin, with accompanying sound effects; or c) Kareena Kapoor as a crazed automaton under the control of the evil villain, driving a Bombay local train towards certain death for its passengers and herself. No-one – not even the kids at whom the film is ostensibly targeted – seems in the slightest bit arrested by the epic battle between Ra.One and G.One – between the forces of evil and good – that is supposed to be the crux of this film.

The plot, for what it's worth, centres on a geeky South Indian dad (played by Shah Rukh Khan as a caricature that's worse than even his Om Shanti Om act), who designs a video game with a supremely powerful villain because his son Prateek thinks villains are cooler than heroes. The video-game villain (Ra.One) plays his first game with Prateek (who, in his badness obsession, calls himself Lucifer), is irritated at having been almost beaten and comes out of the video game to kill Lucifer in real life. Poor nerdy dad and his nerdy Chinese colleague die quick and pointless deaths, while the irritating kid has barely shed a tear for the dad who was too uncool for him when he gets a much cooler substitute: the video-game hero, G.One.

Unfortunately, though, there can be no substitute for feeling. And in this film, we feel nothing at all. When Shah Rukh Khan dies, we're too busy wondering how he gets put in a coffin only to emerge as asthi in a pot. Emotions probably run higher in an actual video game.

Nor does the film imbue its virtual world with any depth. The final video game encounter is the most underwhelming I've seen, while the Ra.One–Raavan connection is utterly banal (how much more Rakeysh Mehra did with Raavan in the flawed but fascinating Aks). The closest connection this film has to Indian mythology is a children's birthday party overrun, for some inexplicable reason, by women in skimpy green outfits and gold jewellery who look straight out of Amar Chitra Katha.

Watch Ra.One if you don't mind sitting through a series of pointless cameos (a ridiculous Priyanka Chopra defending her modesty in a red dress, Sanjay Dutt just so we can hear the word Khalnayak, and Rajinikanth as Chitti the robot – to compensate for the horrific South Indian treatment earlier?) to watch a lot of things being blown to smithereens.

Published in the Sunday Guardian.

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