All this fuss over PK

The film PK has been in the news lately for many different reasons. So I saw the film. I found it to be a relatively poor variation of the Paresh Rawal film, Oh My God (OMG). If you’re up for a movie that questions religion, its beliefs and practices (particularly Hinduism), then go see OMG. It is a better film.

The lead character in OMG, played by Paresh Rawal, is a regular guy that most people can relate to and identify with. The makers of PK have taken the same idea and replaced the hero with a guy from outer space, another planet. Unlike in OMG where the scenes are believable and capture the everyday life of a simple man who dares to question religion, in PK you have an alien learning our religious practices and radiating gyan, in supposed humor.

To read the rest of this article, please visit the Economic Times website where it was first published.

The Business of Robot (Enthiran)

The Tamil film Enthiran — dubbed in Telugu and Hindi (Robot) — was India’s costliest film to date.  According to media reports the film is a runaway hit with record returns.  As the saying goes “Timing is everything” and Enthiran had everything going for it from the start. Here is a look at what made this film such a success and what it means to the future of Indian cinema.

Rajnikanth: In the world of Indian commercial cinema, each star aspires to surpass the box office success of his previous hit film. For “Thalaivar” (as Rajnikanth is referred to by his fans) after two super duper back to back hits in Chandramukhi and Sivaji, an ambitious mega production was a sensible yet risky next step. But if there was anyone in the industry who could attempt this it was Rajinikanth or one of the other top stars.  In short, the timing was just right for Rajnikanth.

Aishwarya Rai: After her debut film Iruvar and later the film, Jeans, Aishwarya Rai has preferred to stick with Hindi films. To star in a film in the south, she really needed something “big” and Enthiran was the answer. Besides, she has the prior experience of working with Director Shankar. Previous attempts to cast to star opposite Rajnikanth had apparently failed to come through for various reasons.  With an eye on a global audience (especially among NRIs), Aishwarya Rai was easily the perfect choice for the producers of the film. Again, for her too, the timing was just right.

Director Shankar: Known for his ambitious projects, every film directed by Shankar is more expensive than his previous film. After the huge success of Sivaji, he had to shoot for something bigger and so the timing was perfect for him to embark on his biggest ever film to date. Besides, with ten super hit films to his credit Director Shankar is easily one of the most bankable directors in the Indian film industry.

AR Rehman: After his recent Oscar award, AR Rehman has extended his popularity and name recognition beyond Indian cinema. Rehman was a clear automatic choice for a big budget Indian film of this scale with global ambitions. His prior experience of working for the Rajinikanth-Shankar team helped firm up the mix for the overall team.

Sun Pictures and Sun TV: The stupendous success of the Sun TV as a business enterprise, and backed by the endless deep pockets of Tamil Nadu’s “ruling family”, there was probably no production house that was better equipped to finance a project of this magnitude. After having dabbled with distribution of Tamil films, Sun Pictures was well positioned to make its first foray into production with a big splash by producing India’s biggest ever film. The rapid expansion of cable TV channels across India makes these channels a perfect medium to  promote films. While Rajinikanth films are never short of publicity, the ceaseless promos on Sun TV served as an icing on the cake.

In short, besides being the top players in their own right, all the major players in this film had one thing in common — the time was just right for each of of them to come together and be part of this mega production. Shankar had a dream project in mind, Rajnikanth was ready for a mega project, AR Rehman was a fixture for the Rajni-Shankar team, Sun Pictures had the resources and the intent, and things fell in place for Aishwarya Rai to further beef up the film’s marketability.

Rajnikanth has proven repeatedly that his films are a virtual box office guarantee. So the biggest reason for the success of this film is the presence of the star himself.  Next, there is the novelty of all the hi-tech used in the film blended into a story that suits the Indian movie-goer. Thirdly, the marketing muscle of Sun pictures. The rest of the credit should go to Aishwarya Rai and AR Rehman for their respective crowd pulling abilities.

Impact on Indian cinema: This film is bound to inspire Indian directors to think “big” (as in big budget films) and to not avoid themes that are unconventional. Thanks to this film a host of technicians and Indian companies have had an opportunity to interact with the best in the business from abroad. The learning from this experience is bound to positively influence the technical aspects of Indian films in the future. Lastly, films especially big budget films are bound to draw upon the marketing techniques used for this film (music launch in Malaysia, byte-size ads featuring the team on cable channels, “making of Enthiran” promos etc.) — all in all an impressive multi-pronged marketing assault.

Movie Review: My Name is Khan

Title: My Name is Khan

Starring: Shahrukh Khan, Kajol

Language: Hindi

The increasing trend among Hollywood production companies to make forays into Bollywood, plus the success of Slumdog millionaire has resulted in Indian film directors attempting themes with universal and global appeal.  While this is a welcome development, it is a lot harder to translate this intent into meaningful cinema without forgoing the traditional  formula for success in Bollywood. Trying to please a very broad audience is a tall order. Karan Johar attempts to do precisely that in this film and (IMHO) has fallen rather short.

Inspired by shades of Forrest Gump, set against a backdrop of a post 9-11 world, terrorism and racial profiling, an underlying call for universal peace and harmony, a good measure of Islam and its interpretations, thrown in with the Asperger syndrome, a Katrina-like storm(!!) for a climax, and of course a highly improbable love story — this in short is what Karan Jahar’s “My Name is Khan” is all about.  If this is not enough of a heady mix, the director has the additional burden of transforming Shahrukh Khan’s traditional on-screen image of a romantic, masala star to one playing a very serious role. Besides, the pressure to constantly portray a larger than life image for a big star weakens the script even further. It is impossible to remain true to life and realistic, or even somewhat believable, while trying to thrust super human abilities on the film’s hero. For instance, it is not enough that the hero suffers from the Aspeger syndrome, he still has to indulge in “hero-giri” to meet the Bollywood formula.

The plot is full of holes and takes liberties that are hard to swallow even by any stretch of imagination.  As a man seriously suffering from Asperger syndrome he wanders around the streets of San Francisco selling herbal products despite being stranded in front of cable cars and being deeply disturbed by loud sounds (and the color yellow among other things), he manages to travel all around the US by himself despite his severe disabilities and turns up to save the poor from storms and other forms of misery, he shares his sorrow in Hindi to a congregation of Afrian-Americans in Georgia(!!), manages to fall in love and get married, he reforms youngsters with terrorist tendencies, attempts to turn in suspected terrorists to the authorities, and is instrumental in generating a mass movement of goodwill and caring among the average citizens of the US!

With 9-11 almost 10 years old, this film might have been better suited to the times had it been released five years sooner. In order to maintain this context, the film constantly swerves back and forth between the past and present. This is both annoying and confusing.  The traditional song and dance has been abandoned in favor of a couple of background songs.  The scenes involving the death of the boy and the surrounding drama are well handled and probably the best part of the film.

While I am no expert on the Asperger syndrome, one can’t help but draw comparisons to ailment afflicted roles played by Leonardo DiCaprio in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Dustin Hoffman in Rainman, Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump, or  for that matter, Amitabh Bachhan in Black. Maybe it’s my lack of knowledge about Asperger syndrome, or my over exposure to Shahrukh and his stereotypyical portrayals in the past, but his performance pales in comparison to these. Kajol handles her role as the divorced single Mom with ease. The rest of the supporting cast have little to do except the boy who acted as Kajol’s son.  His performance if you disregard his Indian accent (despite the character being born and raised in the US) was noteworthy.

This film is not a romantic film, it’s certainly not a comedy, it is not a serious film about terrorism or the Asperger syndrome, it is not a musical, it is not an action film — it is essentially a melodramatic concoction of all of these in ample measure. Herein lies both the conventional USP (unique selling proposition) of the film and its greatest failing.

Having said all of this, I still won’t be surprised if this film is a runaway hit and Shahrukh Khan walks away with several best actor awards because this film is a Bollywood masala weaved into a smorgasbord of contemporary topics, with potential mass appeal despite doing real justice to none of the issues mentioned earlier.

Movie Review: 3 Idiots

Title: 3 Idiots

Starring: Aamir Khan, Madhavan, Kareena Kapoor

Language: Hindi

This a story of three friends who meet at an Engineering college. Aamir Khan, Madhavan and Sharman Joshi play the three friends while Kareena Kapoor as the heroine and Boman Irani as the heroine’s Dad and college Principal comprise the rest of key star cast.

The Director of the film, Raju Hirani (of Munnabhai fame) clearly has a great flair for comedy and always manages to blend “messages” into his films. There is plenty to laugh right through the film plus there is a lot of criticism of the education system in India and associated advice/messages for all involved, all cleverly blended into the script.  Its almost as if the movie makers  set out to see the comic side of almost every scene in the film. The scenes where the friends meet each others families, the NRI student (a slightly exaggerated caricature) and his speech (where chamatkar turns into balatkar), the Principal and his idiosyncrasies  form some of the many outrageously funny sequences.  The quality of the humor  is a of a better standard than that  of the Munnabhai films simply because the theme of this story is one which most people (especially  those who have lived in hostel) can relate to.  So the comedy comes as across as that much more believable. As in most Bollywood films there is plenty of exaggeration in this film too.  Nevertheless, this is a thoroughly enjoyable film.

Surprisingly, Aamir Khan’s age in real life does not comes across as a drawback for the film. Both the star and the Director deserve credit for this. The tight script, the make up and the quality of the acting combined together,  easily make up for this potential shortcoming. You go in thinking “Couldn’t they find someone younger to play a college student?’ but once you watch the film you realize that this was never an issue. Kareena Kapoor handles her role with ease while Boman Irani manages to deliver without going overboard like he often does.  Aamir Khan as the lead in the film puts in another distinctly different, yet impressive performance. His ability to transition between his various roles (Taare Zameen par, Ghajini, 3 Idiots) is commendable. Besides, he deserves credit for selecting his roles and films so carefully so as to avoid stereotyping and yet being able to consistently churn out mega hits.

The Controversy Regarding the Credits

The film makers have given credit to Chetan Bhagat the author of the book Five Point Someone in the credits stating that it was “based on the book by Chetan Bhagat”.  There was some controversy surrounding this issue instigated by the author himself.  But my personal (having read the book) view is that the film makers have been inspired by the book but chose to modify the story significantly. In fact, this film is a perfect example of the stark difference between writing a book and making an equivalent  Bollywood film. Some of the sequences in the film are so ridiculous yet so funny. This is something that is almost impossible to capture in a book. The dialogues form a very critical part of Bollywood films especially when comedy is involved (Kareena’s dialogues about Gujju dishes comes to mind among others!). There can be no dispute whatsoever that the film makers deserve all the credit for this and there is nothing even remotely similar in the book.

Indian films with big stars often indulge in creating the persona of a larger than life image.  Aamir Khan’s character undeniably shoulders this responsibility. He is the smartest student, never worried about grades, knows all the answers, tops the class, cracks the jokes, is eternally helpful, has a heart of gold, gets into trouble, gets the girl, makes you laugh and cry, earns your sympathy, appreciation, admiration, love….that’s traditional Indian cinema for you.  A conventional book of fiction seldom indulges in this  kind of “hero-giri” and Chetan Bhagat’s book is no different.

Next, there is the question of  the “message” in the film.  Sending a message or two through his films seems to be a Raju Hirani trademark (and lately Aamir Khan’s too as in Taare Zameen Par). The film is replete with direct criticism of the Indian educational system. I don’t recall any of this in the book. I don’t mean to say that there are no similarities with the book, but I think Chetan Bhagat’s “kicking and screaming” is without too much merit. The film in its totality is very different from the book and the film makers (IMHO) have given him more than adequate credit.

Movie Review: Invictus

Film: Invictus (“unconquered”) For more info. on the title click here.

Director: Clint Eastwood

Starring: Morgan Freeman, Matt Damon

This film is based on the book “Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Changed a Nation” and captures the rise of Nelson Mandela as President of South Africa post his release from prison and his role in the success of the South African Rugby team in the 1995 World Cup.  Morgan Freeman plays the role of Nelson Mandela, while Matt Damon plays the role of the captain of the South African rugby team, Francois Pienaar.

The movie brings to light happenings during the Mandela Presidency that are fairly unknown in most of the world. The insights into the Nelson Mandela Presidency, his heart felt desires in unifying blacks and whites post-apartheid, his use of rugby as a means to unify the people, his security team comprised of both blacks and whites, his simplicity and affable nature etc.  are all cleverly blended into the script without appearing forced. Morgan Freeman as Mandela is brilliant. Matt Damon has a relatively secondary role in the film and was clearly under utilized. Director Clint Eastwood tries to bring together politics and sports in the film and somehow the focus on Mandela seems to have come at the expense of sports in the film.

Mandela’s conscious attempt in trying to unite the country through rugby is brought out very well at various stages in the film. On the other hand, the transformation in Francios Penaar’s family could have been better handled to make it more believable. His girl friend’s role in the film for instance was needless and had nothing to contribute. Likewise, the change in the mindset of the rest of rugby team did not receive enough attention and did not seem believable either. Nevertheless, the film is an enjoyable watch but its nothing to rave about.  In fact, it pales in comparison to Clint Eastwood’s previous film, Changeling.

p.s:  Since this is a film on Rugby I can’t help but think about “Chak de India” (hockey) and “Lagaan” (cricket). The context of the these films are very different. But the sections of these respective films that focus on sports are so much better handled in the Hindi films.

Movie Review: Unnai pol oruvan

Language: Tamil (also released in Telugu)

Starring: Kamal Haasan, Mohanlal, Lakshmi

This film is the Tamil re-make of the successful Hindi film, A Wednesday. The Tamil version sticks to the Hindi version for the most part except for a few twists to suit the south Indian context (CM sounding like Kalaignar, for instance, Lakshmi as the chief secretary, Mohanlal as the malayali cop etc.). Like the original, this film is an engaging thriller that keeps you guessing to the very end. Its a film based on the topic of terrorism, though there is very little violence per se. The film revolves around a terrorist threat to the city. The terrorist calls the chief of police and informs him of bombs he has placed across the city and communicates his demands. The entire length of the film revolves around the frequent communication between the two. The twist at the end adds a nice touch.

Mohanlal as the lead cop handles his role well as always. His Tamil with a strong malayali accent is fun listening to especially if you know both languages. Kamal Hassan handles his role with his usual aplomb. As always the most annoying part of his acting is his frequent use of English (as he does in most films). I could still live with his English but what I find most irritating is his American (like) accent when he speaks English. In this film he is supposed to be a regular guy and yet he couldn’t resist the American accent! (Oh, please…).

There is no question that this film is very different from anything Bollywood (or Kollywood) has turned out in recent times. It is definitely worth a watch, either in Hindi or in Tamil.

Movie Review: Pazhassi Raja

Language: Malayalam (dubbed in other languages Tamil, Telugu)

Starring: Mamooty, Sarath Kumar, Manoj K. Jayan, Padmapriya

Saw a Malayalam film in the theater after a long time. Pazhassi Raja, a magnum opus by Kerala standards, is a historical film and the costliest Malayalam film ever.  The movie is based on a King named Kerala Varma Pazhassi Raja who ruled in the northern part of Kerala in 17th century prior to most well known struggles against the British rule in India.

Mamooty handles the lead role as Pazhassi Raja with ease. The supporting start cast is given plenty of screen time unlike a typical big star dominated film. Sarath Kumar, Manoj K. Jayan, and Padmapriya all perform brilliantly. Sarath Kumar in particular, stood out in his role as the Kings’s right hand man.

The sets, locales and photography were impressive.  There is plenty of violence as one would expect and there is a good measure of martial arts and clever camera work to add to the special effects. The songs were a disappointment (thankfully there were only a couple) especially considering that the same team of movie makers had terrific songs in their previous film(Vadakan Veera Katha) several years back. Despite being a fairly long film the makers have managed to keep the audience engaged right through. If you are in the mood for a period film this one is worth watching.

Thanks to this film, I now know of a one more King and his struggles against the British. 🙂