Tuesday, June 10, 2014


Once in a while do odes to cinema itself also appear among all the others: in different guises and playing with all our emotions, as a film about films ought to do. The greatest ode perhaps remains Nuovo Cinema Paradiso, but Filmistaan remains the best one to Indian cinema in particular. The beautiful thing about it is that just like Cinema Paradiso manages to elevate itself into an epic story of undying love, Filmistaan (literally meaning "the land of films," but also rhyming with Hindustan and Pakistan, the entities that a barbarous partition created and the repercussions of which the film deals with) also becomes a film about human goodness: and amazingly, while dealing with a topic as complex as hardline zealots, presents a comedy par excellence.

Who would think of Sharib Hashmi as the leading man of a film? And yet how could this film have been made without him: without his thumkas, his infectious energy, his never-say-die spirit of playfulness? No situation can daunt this man; and it is easy to fall in love with him. And yet some have crossed over so much into the land of bitterness that either they come back too late from it or they never manage to do so (Jawad and Mehmood). While man keeps propounding ideologies and erecting idols, while he keeps drawing circles of philosophy around something as simple and uncomplicated as life, and thus makes life complicated, Hashmi, in the role of Sunny Arora, unravels it all in a wink, in a trick, in a dialogue from a Hindi film aptly suited to the situation: he doubts himself that maybe he is not an actor, but only a buffoon, but no one who gets to know him will doubt who he is and what he has given to them. In a way, he is the Idiot, the Prince Myshkin, of Dostoeyvsky, and it is rare for me to come across another Myshkin in literature, film, or life. So many years have been rolled back for me, and so many encrusted ideas of the other have been swept away for the Pakistani village. Because it is stories that human hearts thirst for: and the one who can be happy in stories is richer than anyone else, than any saint or assassin, any magnate or politician.

Films: as Indians we grow up with them. They are weaved into our afternoons, our lazy Sundays, our morning shows, our speech, even our gods and goddesses. Films have often changed a generation's outlook in India, as did notably Hare Rama Hare Krishna or 3 Idiots. But even films of a trend, from Maine Pyar Kiya to Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge, and thereafter, coloured the minds of many. The sterile Hollywood cannot give us what the rain-drenched, emotion-laden, suggestive-dance-attuned, melodrama-oscillating Indian films do. The beauty of Indian cinema is seldom acknowledged; if it is, it is only those like Ray, poor imitators of the West, who are spoken of. Indians are ashamed to appreciate the Indian idiom, the joy that we celebrate our life with and that reflects in our films: and Filmistaan unabashedly does precisely that. A much-needed injection of courage to those who love heavy Raj Kumar dialogues.

Note: The film's comedy depends heavily on the viewer understanding the Indian cultural context, more specifically the films and actors referenced. If you haven't watched a lot of Hindi films from all eras plus cannot recall easily who or what is being referenced, the film isn't necessarily for you. The subtitles would be meaningless unless you understand why the original dialogue of a referenced film is epic/memorable in the first place, and of course what is being referenced.

Thursday, June 05, 2014

City Lights (2014)

In a way, the film City Lights is all about what not to do: fine performances, especially from the lead actor Rajkummar Rao, beautiful music, and a story made for a gritty thriller all fail to uplift the film to being a classic, which the film could easily have been with a bit more reflection, bit more getting lost in the world of no-hopefuls. And yet, the film remains a beautiful etching on the Indian cinematic canvas, and the effort to make it an honest one: most importantly, the film rises above being a crime drama and becomes a beautiful film about marriage and love, a typical story from the heart of India. For in India, we have arranged marriages and we are fiercely loving, loyal and understanding of our other half: self-sacrifices are commonplace and more often than not, love reigns supreme. It is something foreign to the "my liberty"-searching Western mind-set (and newer generations of Indians), but Rao and Patralekha (playing his wife) remind one of what a typical Indian couple are: their love, their fleeting joys and omnipresent lurking dangers, their struggles for a better material life, their ability to sacrifice everything for their love, their honour, their children.

Where the film does suffer is a lack of coherent vision about what the film wants to be. Manav Kaul, playing Rao's mentor and colleague Vishnu, is given too much screen time: unfortunately, the film is not about crime and gangs, nor about how to carry out a heist. The film is about a little family of three, and Kaul's unneeded, constant presence in the film eats into the soul of the film. In fact, to put it bluntly, the film could have been twenty minutes shorter, and with a differently shot climax. Bad editing is a feature of the film elsewhere: there was no need of some of the characters; the background music is unable to be weaved in with the story by the director though the music is wonderful; small things like unnecessary references, both visually and aurally, to lights of a city could have been avoided (especially when abruptly introduced like at the intermission if you watch this one in an Indian theatre); and the grand finale could have been more high-octane, much more thrilling. Right now, there's nothing grand about it. The film is essentially a love story, a story of survival: not just a crime drama. The film fails to realize this; however, the one place where some thrills were badly needed is where the film fails to provide them.

However, for someone who's not lived in a materially poor society, the film may certainly be a gem to watch. The performances are marvellous, complete with Rajasthani accents. The film is also well shot, and some of the meandering shots are brilliant: I particularly remember one of the shots at the beginning of the film of dim, yellow light reflecting on the steel utensils typical to any Indian home. I think I will remember that shot for a long time into my life: in that shot is hidden the song "Muskuraane ke vajah tum ho" ("You are the reason for smiling"). If only the filmmaker could have drawn out that connection!