Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Raavan or What You See Isn't Always What You Get

I saw Raavan today. I'm not doing a full review as I honestly probably need to see the film a few more times to say anything really intelligent about it but I did want to point out what I liked about it (since enough negative has already been said). As a former English Literature major in college, there are few things I enjoy more than a piece of art (be it film, TV, music, book, etc) that has some symbolism that I can sink my teeth into. This is why I love Mani Ratnam and his films. He generally makes intelligent films full of symbolism. This is what I liked about Raavan.

1. One of the main themes of the story is perception; how we perceive situations and people based on our perspective, who we are and who they are supposed to be. What we may find is that when we get to know the truth, a true vision of a person or situation, it may be very different than we thought at first glance. This includes the way we perceive ourselves until some event teaches us that we are different than we thought we were. This theme is illustrated very smartly by visuals in the film of characters gazing at each other through tree branches, reflections on the water, photographs and mirrors.

2. Another major theme is that of cause and effect and how it perpetuates a never-ending cycle, in this case a cycle of violence. Unless one party is able to engage the higher side of their being and willingly surrender the upper hand that is. This theme works in tandem with the perception theme when it is the "demon" who accepts what looks like defeat in order to stop the cycle.

3. The film is slow and a bit confusing pre-interval but there is a reason for that that I appreciate and I thought was quite well done. You're really not sure why everything that's happening is happening or why it's all so dire or why you should care. Post-interval, however, the motivation behind Beera's actions are revealed to the heroine, Ragini and to the audience at the same time. I thought it was quite smartly done because the audience goes on the same journey as the heroine. She has, I'm sure, her perception of why these things are happening to her as do we the audience, only to find out that things are not necessarily what she or we thought they were.

4. Santosh Sivan was, as always, pure genius. The cinematography is breathtaking. You MUST see the film for that if for no other reason. Every frame is like a painting. I wish my life was as pretty and dreamy as a Santosh Sivan film *sigh*

5. I really enjoyed Abhishek's portrayal of Beera. This is a character who is a bit unhinged even schizophrenic and I thought he played it quite well. He brought a frenetic sort of energy to the role along with a sort of mad intensity and at times a childlike petulance and ignorance of why what he was doing was wrong. I thought all of it worked and successfully walked the line between making the character a real person and a figure out of mythology. (Also, he looked really good with that black tunic plastered to his body)

6. Aishwarya was strikingly beautiful and did a superb job. She captured and conveyed some very complex emotions very well. She and Abhi had fantastic chemistry together which is, as we've unfortunately seen before, not always the case with real life couples.

7. Another train used as a symbol in a Ratnam film. I really like the idea of the train as a symbol of the inevitability of events once set in motion. Once two characters meet or once a discussion begins, fate has been sealed and events will keep moving relentlessly forward until the inevitable conclusion.

Overall, I enjoyed the movie because it was lovely to look at, the performances were good and it had nice visual symbolism to chew on. It wasn't my favorite movie and was quite slow paced for all the action and drama in it but that is kind of what I've come to expect from Mani Ratnam. His films end up being the ones that I want to watch over and over again because every time I do, I find something new that I missed before. His films have a way of haunting you and growing in your psyche. I can already feel Raavan taking up more space in my brain and the urge to not just see it again but examine and dissect it has already taken root.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Raajneeti or "Out Damn Spot! No? Ok, What's the Big Deal About a Little Blood on my Hands Anyway?

SPOILERS! Sorry but there is no way to review this movie without some spoilers (though I've tried to steer clear of specific plot points) so read at our own risk.

I really enjoyed Raajneeti. Yes, it was long. Yes, it was fairly violent. Yes, it's a film about politics. It's also an engaging, absorbing tale of filial duty, the sins of one generation punishing the next, the love of power for power's sake and good old-fashioned vengeance. It is truly Shakespearean storytelling and to try to talk about it or see it through any other lens would make it seem over the top and I believe it deserves better than that. So, if you're in the mood for Machiavellian political machinations and high drama in a morality play with a resolution as murky and gray as the characters and their motivations, Raajneeti is a must-see film.

The film started out with a lot of information about the characters and their relation to each other and the same with political parties. I was a bit overwhelmed and wondered if I would be able to make sense of it all. Eventually, I realized that those things were really just distractions from the real story of people and the corrupting influence of power. You have 3 hours of political families and parties vying to win the upcoming elections and not once does anyone discuss the issues, what it is the voters want or why it is they want to win other than they believe they are entitled to win. The candidates feed the populace empty rhetoric that has nothing to do with actually governing the people and the people are easily influenced by such rhetoric, not questioning any of what happens. This is why I say Raajneeti is simply an examination of power. It's about how obtaining a little bit of power causes an insatiable thirst for more power, how having power creates a hunger to maintain that power at any cost, how power blinds those who have it to the reasons they wanted it in the first place and how it brings out the worst in them.

I find I don't really want to talk about the specific plot points of Raajneeti. I found all of it interesting and it all served to illustrate what I saw as the overall theme. What I do want to talk about are the performances and chemistry between characters.

Hallelujah! Finally, Arjun Rampal has an outstanding performance. He was truly good in this role. He was perfect as the charismatic but less calculating and more passion-driven scion of a ruling political family. He got everything about the character right from the coldness of the manipulating politician to the vulnerability of the brother, son and husband motivated by his love of his family, to bloodthirsty and slightly mad man in the throes of revenge. His chemistry with Ranbir was fantastic! He plays the protective, older brother with so much affection that you believe that, as bad as he is, if he can love his brother that much, he must not be totally irredeemable. I have always wanted Arjun to be a good actor and he has far exceeded my hopes in Raajneeti. I hope he can be consistent in the future.

Speaking of consistency....Katrina Kaif needs to try it sometime. She wasn't awful but she wasn't very good either. She had some of her trademark wooden moments when you wondered if, like a claymation figure, they were posing her, taking a shot, moving her, taking the next shot and thus animating her. She had some moments that were pretty well acted too but her problem seems to be that you can see her thinking about her acting all the time. She tries too hard and you can see the thought process as plain as day on-screen. Her character was a pivotal one which could have resulted in a very moving and powerful performance had it been given to a better actress. It's a shame it was wasted on someone not ready for it, someone who may never be ready for it.

Ranbir Kapoor was fantastic as usual. He is an actor that, I believe, has enough stand out performances under his belt now to be counted on to deliver every time. I've said it before and I will say it again, he's got the "it" factor and is Bollywood's newest generation's brightest star. He has joined the very exclusive ranks of stars who will get me to the theater no mater what, Shahrukh, Hrithik, and Ranbir. That being said, I have been eagerly awaiting him in a negative or gray role and he delivers in Raajneeti and how! I actually think it's genius casting because he has that vulnerability and aura of niceness that he brings to all of his roles so that you are all the more shocked to see what he does and becomes over the course of the film. He plays cold and calculating brilliantly and makes it sexy! His performance was fantastic and compelling. An interesting point about his character...he may seem to be one of the worst people in a film full of really bad people but his character actually has the purest motivation of all. He is ready to leave all the politics to his family and return to his studies in the U.S. until something happens that causes him to seek vengeance for the sake of a loved one. He is the character most suited to the mantle of power and yet he is the only character that I believe doesn't do what he does for power.

Ajay Devgan...another good character played by a mediocre actor. He's better than Katrina but he needs to have more than one facial expression. Is the man capable of smiling? Has anyone ever seen it? And the way he carries himself...classic "smell the fart acting." Also, whose idea was it for him to play a 27 year old character? Ridiculous! Still, his performance was passable. I just, again, think another actor could have done more with it.

Nana Patekar...wow! He was outstanding as the patriarch/puppet master/kingmaker of all the political maneuvering in the film. His character will go to any lengths to protect the family's political position and power all seemingly with a chilling lack of conscience. He smiles and plays the caring chacha while peoples' lives are bought and sold and ended to serve his whims. His chemistry with Ranbir was terrific! They have some stand out scenes together that are great fun to watch.

The other actors and actresses are fine. Again, they could have found a better American actress to play Ranbir's girlfriend but she wasn't awful in the KJo tradition of white actors. Although, if I had to hear her say "summer" instead of pronouning Samar properly one more time...I would have gladly killed her.

Manoj Bajpai as Veerendra was a little too "filmi villain" for me. It was mostly his look that was a bit ridiculous and he had a few OTT moments. I think a better actor could have won the audience's sympathy more at the end when I think we were meant to feel something for him. I was too distracted by his filmi moochie and straight from the 70s wardrobe to feel anything for him at that point.

Nikhila Trikha is the debutante actress who plays the mother of the family. She was much better in the scenes where she was a young woman opposing her father's political party than she was as the present day 50-60ish mother of Ajay, Arjun and Ranbir. She just didn't have the skill to play the emotional depth needed and her scenes that should have evoked some emotion left me feeling cold. Maybe it was because I couldn't find anything sympathetic about her character at that point in the film. Any woman who allows herself to be controlled and then allows the same thing to happen to her children and lets them be raised to be what they become gets nothing but contempt from me.

Finally, Nasserudin Shah. He has a very small role in the film but he made the most of it. He was wonderful for the few minutes he was onscreen and I wish he was in more films.

So, Raajneeti is definitely worth seeing in my opinion. Even if you don't like the story I think you'll find the performances worth your time and money. I, however, think that you'll find this case study of the human hunger and quest for power compelling in and of itself. There is a lot packed into the last half of the film and I've already heard some people say it gets too filmi but when you play as deep a game as these characters do, consequences are to be expected. What goes around comes around. This is why I call it Shakespearean in scale. It is a heightened version of life...an absolute version, if you will. After all, power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.