Thursday, August 30, 2007

Chak De I say!!

Chak De India was one of those movies which earns grudging respect from even the harshest critic despite the usual barrage of stereotypes and narrative cliches that it contains. I was pleasantly surprised by what Shimit Amin and more importantly, Yash Raj Films had put on the table. Chak De India is no pathbreaker but it is a more than credible effort at a subject that has been grossly misrepresented in the past.

Yash Raj Films can very well take a bow for it has a lot to be proud of as far as this feature is concerned. Imagine a Chak De centered around cricket. Easy isnt it? Then again the sport itself is not the be all and end all of the film. The hockey that we see is played with passion (and shot with zest) but never forced down our throats by eulogising players - the sort one would immediately associate with cricket. The emphasis is instead on the act of playing. "Play like nothing else matters in those 70 minutes" is what Kabir Khan tells his rakshas-sena. And they do. Jingoistic drivel is never too far away with "play for your country" kind of sloganeering lurking in the shadows. Perhaps it was screenwriter Jaideep Sahni (of Khosla ka Ghosla fame) who tied all the loose ends together with his dialogue that flowed with such ease in the face of heavyweight issues like patritotism, spotrs(wo)manship and national identity.

Clearly Chak De was not an attempt at one-upmanship in order to re-establish Hockey as the national sport despite Cricket being the universal favourite. It simply sought to pay heed to a sport that has never found its place in the sun. And it is a sport that is immensely demanding of its patrons and requires dextrous skill. The tongue-in-cheek references to cricket weren't lost on anyone.

I was impressed by the sound characterisation in the film. From Kabir Khan to Bindiya Naik (one of the most alluring figures in the film) to Komal Chautala to the matronly Krishna Ji. They were full-blooded characters with genuinely complex stories behind them. There were several poignant moments in the film which could have so easily slipped over to melodrama. The rabble-rousing Bindiya Naik touted as the most experienced player on the team vows to play by her rules or to not play at all. And one realises that these rules she calls her own are not really determined by her. They have been given to her by a system that is corrupt and where it is as important to play games well as it is to play the sport.

The girls easily steal the show. What the filmmakers did when they chose these fledgling actors over crowd-pulling stars was to choose their script, their story and their characters above the obvious commerce of cinema in India. Of course with Shahrukh himself playing the lead the crowd was already collecting at the ticket counters.

This could very well be one of SRKs better celluloid moments. We are spared the star-studded swagger and the come-hither curl of the lip. No SRK with outstretched arms set off by the Manhattan skyline. No stammering and no hamming. This was Shahrukh the actor not SRK the brand, in action. We see a Shahrukh with stubble and even a few grey hairs, sporting not see-through shirts but ordinary clothes. He is not Raj or Rahul. He is Kabir Khan and that defines his identity and his persona on screen as far as Chak De India! is concerened. His hand comes up in a salaam and not a namaste when he greets the foregin coaches. It is his mulk and qaum not his desh that he talks about. Kabir Khan, forsaken by his country and his people, earns his redemption when his motley bunch wins the championship. (Of course they win!) The scene is played out eloquently. The goalie captain Vidya saves the final goal. (A seconds delay in the sound of the erupting cheers makes all the difference. ) Its done. The team has won. But for Khan it is a vindication only he knows about. We see him standing alone in the frame. He simply stands for a moment before his knees seem to become weak. He falls back a few steps and grabs onto a rail for support. The moment defines Kabir Khan's quest for identity, his quest to reclaim his pride. No expository dialogue could have conveyed what one gesture, executed effortlessly by Shahrukh, conveyed.

Once in a while a film comes along that redefines the way we look at mainstream cinema. Chak De India is not that film. But it is definitely a film that restores faith and gives hope that there is more to Bollywood than meets the eye.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

And Justice for all - on Sanjay Dutt and what it means to be a star

Im all for equality before law. And in times like these where rule of law seems to have become nothing but a textbook term it is even more imperative for the state machinery to uphold and honour the law. But I couldnt help feeling the deepest sympathy for Sanjay Dutt and his family as he was sentenced this Tuesday to 6 years of rigorous imprisonment. Not because hes a filmstar - thoug he IS one of the better ones - but because he did in fact seem to be a changed man.

In our country filmstars and celebrities a have life that seems to run parallel to and at times dangerously at odds with the rest of the nation. The cult of celebrity has captured the imagination of the country in a manner that rivals the most ardent devotee and believer. It is a zealous faith, that borders on fanaticism. I just saw a news item on CNN-IBN about a man who had cut off his finger as an offering at a dargah. All for Sanju Baba. even without one finger his faith is intact. Unshakeable even in the face of evidence and the due process of law that has found Dutt to be guilty.

We may scoff at the obvious irrationality of a fan but trust me - it takes one to know one. One only has to mention "Rajkumar" to get a reaction that will be nothing short of extreme. If his natural death caused a city to be paralysed for two days on account of endemic violence, I wonder what would have happened had Veerappan done the unspeakable when he had the chance. Saira Banu, presumably distressed by the verdict had this to say to the media and anyone who was listening "Had he (Sanjay Dutt) been a South Indian superstar people would have been out on the streets in protest. But here nobody seems to be bothered." It is a strange and extremely self-indulgent statement to make. I say strange because it seems that the cult of celebrity is subscribed to not only by the aam janta but is believed to be the rightful claim of filmstars. By themselves!

It seems natural to ask WHY. Why are the likes of Sanjay Dutt, Amitabh Bachan, Rajkumar and Rajnikant revered and are second only to those images and beliefs we deify as religion? Why does an otherwise sensible human being take his own life in the event of his hero or heroine succumbing to what is only inevitable in natures scheme of things? What have these demigods of cinema given to our teeming millions which no heads of state have been able to give? Why has Munnabhai made Gandhi the new -ism yet again when historians, activists and politicians have notably failed in doing the same? Why have temples been built in the name of Amitabh Bacchan when religion has relentlessly failed its own followers?

Cinema in India belongs to the people. Ramachandra Guha in his sprawling work "India after Gandhi" gives due credit to it as a potent force and a necessary thread in the democratic fabric of the country. But then there are many shadows that lurk on the edges of this bright picture that everyone seems to be so eager to paint. The "film fraternity" in India has remianed consistently apolitical. Even Amir Khan had to reasess his position on NBA when his association with Coke was brought up. A commitment to art is a commitment to society. It cannot be diverged from the same. Amitabh Bacchan was a product of the time. His angry young man was a reflection of society. And he is still riding high on the wave of success that began then.

Why did the film communiy that owes its very foundation to the people, not come out in support for the victims of the Gujarat riots? Instead of paying lip-service to a cause why don't the babus of bollywood make a film on it? Why has there been a conspicuous absence of films being made on the Partition which is a deep fissure on the Indian sub-conscience? In countries like Germany, Italy and the Middle East cinema has provided an avenue for positive debate - a means to acknowledge and come to terms with the past and take stock of the present. One only has to watch films like No Man's Land, Goodbye Lenin or the films of the Makhmalbaf family to realise that cinema can indeed be a force to reckon with. And though I dont believe cinema to be a direct vehicle of change, I know that it is a catalyst and can do wonders for a starved imagination.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Another one bites the dust - red dust?

"My contribution to the formation of a new cinematic language is amatter that concerns critics. And not even today's critics, but ratherthose of tomorrow, if film endures as an art and if my films resist the ravages of time."

Michelangelo Antonioni, 1965

Two greats gone in two days. A staggering loss. I read something on another blog which insinuated that God is trying to have a film festival up in heaven. I wonder what's next.