16 October 2011

Cinemascope: Jo Dooba So Paar; Drive

Fails to bloom after promising start

Director: Praveen Kumar
Starring: Vinay Pathak, Rajat Kapoor, Anand Tiwary, Pitobash Tripathi, Sadia Siddiqui

Praveen Kumar's debut feature begins with great promise. The scene is set in a school somewhere in Bihar. Uniformed boys – most of them that awkward age marked by a newly-broken voice and a proudly-displayed wispy moustache – are walking the corridors, loudly reciting the grammatical formula for kaarak: "Karta ne karam ko karan se sampradaan ke liye apadaan se...". Up on the school terrace sits Keshu (the superb Anand Tiwari), deep in conversation with a flower ("Sepal petal sab thheek thhaak?"). His voice is fully-formed, and he doesn't have a wispy moustache, so we know he's our hero – even before he is approached by a gang of admirers urging him to have the exam cancelled.

This is the kind of scene which appears less and less frequently in Hindi films; a scene that is both entirely certain of its cultural location and yet will resonate with anyone who's ever mugged up something for an exam, or for that matter anyone who's ever known a school dada. But after this confident introduction, the film swiftly loses its way. Keshu's sabotaging of the exam forces him out of school and into his father's truck, and suddenly we are in the midst of a world that aspires to be colourful but comes off as barely outlined. Nameless sadhus dispatch grenades in egg-boxes, while the slick English-speaking inspector (Rajat Kapur) and his dullard assistant Tokan (Vinay Pathak) preside over a sleepy police station. But neither they, nor Keshu's motley crew of friends (including the talented Pitobash Tripathy), nor even the mausi Keshu favours with questions about love that "only she can answer" (Surekha Sikri) ever transcend a one-line summary of their characters.

Praveen Kumar gives most screen time to Keshu's infatuation with a visiting vilayati mem – the metaphorically named Sapna (Sita Ragione Spada) – but it never feels like more than a glimmer in Keshu's eye. So neither the appearance of Sapna's white boyfriend nor her being kidnapped disturbs us in the least. Nor do the film's other relationships – Gulabo's (Sadia Siddiqui) watchful concern for the depressed Tokan, Keshu's youthful disdain for his truck-driving father, the charmingly frank sexual connection between Keshu's parents – ever realise their suggestive potential.

The film's rich visual detailing draws lovingly on a varied Bihari aesthetic, from the Madhubani paintings that Sapna is researching to the image of the Pokharpurwali that Tokan gazes at all night, from the murals on the truck to the painted eyes that peer out of Keshu's torn-at-the-knee jeans. If only the plot were less like a jigsaw puzzle with pieces missing.

Cool, calculated and designed to grip

Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston

There’s a scene in Drive where the sad-eyed protagonist, known to us only as the Driver (Ryan Gosling), is watching television with a thoughtful child called Benecio (Kaden Leos). How do you know this is a bad guy?, he asks Benecio. Look at him, says Benecio, he’s a shark! The scene feels like a tiny clue to the neo-noir world of this film, where nothing is quite how it seems on the surface, where it’s impossible to tell if a guy’s really a shark just by looking at him. Dangerous gangsters cut big-time deals in deceptively small-time pizzerias, mafia men moonlight as producers of action movies, pawnshop owners deny they were ever robbed.

There are bigger, more sledgehammer clues, too – eerie rubber face masks, a murder shown only in shadow – but at the film’s impenetrable core is Gosling’s masterful turn as the archetypal silent, toothpick-chewing hero, his chillingly cool handling of the wheel through nailbiting car chases juxtaposed with the warmth and vulnerability of his budding relationship with lovely neighbour Irene (Carey Mulligan). The car chases are of two kinds: the first one we see has the Driver behind the wheels of a getaway vehicle for a bank robbery; in the second, he’s doing a car crash stunt for a movie. This is Los Angeles, and the artifice of Hollywood is never far away. But Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn self-consciously juggles a bare-bones realism with an uber-stylised idiom that is heavy on slow motion. So we get bright lights and big city, but we get with it the throbbing silence of the parking lot, the non-stop tinny rhythms of Cartoon Network, the baited breath of the elevator ride. And unexpectedly, we also get the wondrous cinematic feel of California sun on people’s faces.

Lest you think Drive is only some marvellously atmospheric ode to LA, however, one must end with the warning that the second half of the film contains some of the most deliberate violence I’ve seen in a long time. And it feels more real than most cinematic violence one is used to. You can decide if that makes it worse or better.

(Published as my Sunday Guardian column this week)

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