Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Hitting The Right Notes

Ever since my Daughter was born 5 years ago, I have developed a habit of singing my favourite Bangla and Hindi songs (that means mostly RD Burman-Kishore Kumar numbers) to Her. Apart from trying to introduce Her to the Golden Era of popular Hindi/Bengali music, the idea has also been to keep Her away from the "Badtameez dil"/"Beat pe booty"-brand of atrocities. And it seems my efforts are bearing fruit.
Recently, I went to a friend's house with my Daughter. The host, a lover of retro music, started playing some old songs on his mobile attached to a speaker. After a song or two, "Tere bina zindagi se koi" came on.
My Daughter was sitting on the floor and playing by Herself. Suddenly, She looked up, cocked Her ears at the song that was playing, turned to me, and said: "Baba, Baba, Jete jete poth-e holo deri...", and then She started singing the Bangla version of the Aandhi song!
I was astonished at how my 5-year-old had been able to recognize the tune of the Hindi song and correctly identified the Bangla version of it. Evidently I must be doing something right, as far getting my Daughter's ears attuned to good music is concerned.

Saturday, 4 February 2017

Old-school ‘Kaabiliyat’ (4.5/5)

Originality of content in mainstream Indian/Hindi Cinema has always been an area of much debate and vagueness, where masters of ‘derived inspiration’ have done battle with champions of fresh thoughts. Owing to the mass market-driven compulsion of catering to a pan-Indian audience, where the lowest common denominator can make or break a multi-crore venture, well-packaged entertainment has by and large lorded over novelty of ideas here, with both ‘manufacturers’ (since film folk nowadays insist on referring to themselves as an ‘industry’ – albeit a most disorganized one) and patrons traditionally preferring the former.

At this juncture, we are faced with a most interesting question: is originality overrated, at least in the realms of mainstream cinema? It can be argued that there are only so many stories to tell, and shrewd manipulation of the theme (and the resources at the maker’s disposal) by way of skillful direction and a smart screenplay often scores over original content, provided the treatment and packaging are done adroitly enough. Look no further than commercial Hindi Cinema of the 1973-1982 period, the era that has been arguably the most influential in defining India’s contemporary pop culture, the age of giants like Salim-Javed and Amitabh Bachchan. Many of their best works (jointly and separately) were inspired by other films, both Indian and international. DEEWAAR owed its roots to Gunga Jumna and Mother India; MAJBOOR took off from Zig Zag; SHAKTI had its genesis in DEEWAAR (and to some extent Thanga Pathakkam); ZANJEER took its inspiration from Death Rides A Horse, AGNEEPATH borrowed liberally from Nayakan, and SHOLAY had too many points of influence to list in a single article. Yet all these films are counted among the most well-crafted pieces of commercial Hindi cinema, having stood the test of durability and in turn becoming inspiration points themselves.

This brings us to Kaabil, produced by actor-turned-filmmaker Rakesh Roshan and directed by Sanjay Gupta, both master craftsmen of the masala entertainment genre. Neither man has ever been a stickler for originality: while Roshan took inspiration from diverse sources such as Return To Eden (Khoon Bhari Maang), Ram Aur Shyam (Kishen Kanhaiya), KASME VAADE (Kaho Naa…Pyaar Hai), E.T. (Koi…Mil Gaya), and Superman (Krrish and Krrish 3), Gupta successfully Indianized A Better Tomorrow (Aatish), The Juror (Khauff), Reservoir Dogs (KAANTE), Oldboy (Zinda), and Seven Days (Jazbaa). Kaabil keeps the tradition alive while serving as a good confluence point of both Gupta’s and Roshan’s individual approaches to filmmaking.

Rohan Bhatnagar (Hrithik Roshan), a young voice-over artiste, is introduced to Supriya Sharma (Yami Gautam), an independent working woman, by a well-meaning mutual acquaintance. It is literally a blind date – both are sightless. They click and before long, Rohan has successfully wooed Supriya. Expectedly, marriage follows.

Soon afterwards, tragedy strikes the lovelorn couple. Local goon Amit Shelar (Rohit Roy) and his friend Wasim (Md. Sahidur Rahaman) rape a vulnerable Supriya when Rohan is away at work. Since Amit is the younger brother of influential corporator Madhavrao Shelar (Ronit Roy), the investigating officers waste no time in hushing up the case; they even help Madhavrao abduct the couple to prevent them from going for the all-important medical examination that must be conducted within 24 hours of rape. Far from helping the distraught couple, the police label them as frauds attempting to blackmail the Shelars.

Supriya commits suicide after being raped for the second time. When Madhavrao taunts Rohan and tells him to stop pursuing the case, the grieving man, who has already given up on the law, decides to take things in his own hands and deliver vigilante justice to his beloved’s tormentors.

Kaabil is a shout-out to Bollywood’s great revenge dramas of the 80s and 90s, the direct descendant of films like ANDHAA KAANOON, AAKHREE RAASTA, INDRAJEET, and Phool Aur Angaar, where the hero, traumatized after the rape and subsequent death of his wife/adopted daughter/sister, sets out on a mission to visit vengeance upon the evil-doers. While the premise itself is nothing new, the treatment is clever, with the protagonists’ blindness adding a new dimension to an oft-told tale, but not without silently outlining how much modern-day Bollywood, despite its nose-turned-up-at-everything-retro attitude, is still dependent upon the formulaic, masala cinema of yore as far as drawing inspiration is concerned.

Hrithik is in fabulous form; this is probably his finest performance since Krrish in mid-2006. The goofy lover, the talented dubbing artiste, the broken husband shattered by his wife’s rape and suicide, the relentless machine of death – he does full justice to every aspect of the role. He moves through the narrative as a Great White Shark might move through the ocean: smooth and unstoppable. The scene at the shopping mall, where the young lover’s helplessness surfaces on getting separated from his girlfriend, and his dubbing scenes, especially his spot-on mimicry of Amitabh Bachchan to impress his new wife, deserve special mention. In many ways, the character of Rohan Bhatnagar is a direct throwback to Bachchan’s Angry Young Vijay of DEEWAAR, SHAKTI, and AGNEEPATH: dangerous, calm, calculating, and a resourceful risk-taker. He reminds one of textbook ‘blind man’ performances such as Sanjeev Kumar in Qatl, Denzel Washington in The Book Of Eli, and Naseeruddin Shah in Sparsh.

Yami Gautam is restrained; there is a great deal of poise in her portrayal of Supriya who, even in her darkest hour, puts her husband’s emotional suffering ahead of her own trauma. Rohit Roy is suitably slimy, while Ronit Roy channelizes the innate menace of Madhavrao very well. But it is Narendra Jha, the chief baddie from last year’s Ghayal Once Again, who is a revelation as senior cop Chaubey. Clearly, here is someone to watch out for.

The technical aspects of the film are well-rounded. Akiv Ali’s editing is sharp, while Sudeep Chatterjee and Ayananka Bose’s cinematography is polished. The numerous close-ups capture the expressions of the characters in fine detail. Shyam Kaushal’s fight sequences are ingenious and tight; since our man is blind and has to rely more on his wits and other senses than physical sight, it was necessary to keep the action short and focused. Rajesh Roshan’s music is a bit of a letdown: barring "Main tere kaabil", none of the other songs stand out and the remixed degradation of the Kishore Kumar classic “Saara zamana” (from YAARANA) into an item number is deplorable. Pity – one has always associated Rajesh Roshan with melodious music, right from Khatta Meetha and Doosara Aadmi to KNPH, and though Kaabil does not have much scope for music, one wishes he had done better.

Some of the first reviews of Kaabil mentioned how the screenplay focused more on Rohan than on Supriya and how the plot was regressive in its portrayal of a rape victim as a sullied, broken object. One feels compelled to disagree. Apart from the fact that the film is Hrithik’s home production and was always going to focus more on him than anyone else, Kaabil is Rohan’s story, told from his viewpoint, not Supriya’s. Expecting her to have an equal role would be akin to demanding Radha and Basanti be given as much screen time as Jai and Veeru. Supriya’s importance lies in the fact that her tragedy is the fulcrum on which the machine operates, but Rohan was always going to be the main power switch. (And honestly, did anyone really think the makers were going to bank as much on Yami Gautam as Hrithik?) As for the “regressive” bit, that too is a misinterpretation: as Rohan correctly deduces, Supriya gives up her life not because she is weak, but because she realizes how hard her defenselessness against her abusers is going to hit her husband. Rohan’s silence to Supriya’s offer of walking away arose not from any kind of ‘disgust’ at his wife’s ‘tarnished honour’, but more from a husband’s helpless, frustrated rage at not having been around to protect his wife from her predators.

Kaabil is not flawless – it is not explained how a dubbing artiste could manage to book an (expensive) apartment in a Mumbai high-rise, or why Supriya stopped working after marriage, or why the phone booth owner was always conveniently absent every time Rohan went there to make a call – but these are minor quibbles. The film definitely packs a punch. Watch it if you are a Hrithik fanboy/fangirl. Watch it even if you are not. Because solid old-fashioned entertainment, especially one that does not take recourse to lionization of criminals or distortion of documented history, is a rarity from today’s Bollywood.

[Image courtesy: Google Images]

[A shorter and slightly altered version of this post can be found here:]