Queen (2014)

Queen is undoubtedly the most refreshing and well-made cinema I have recently seen. And the credit goes to Vikas Bahl (the director) and Kangana Ranaut (the queen herself).

An overview:

A hard-core feminist film.

An ideal chauvinist, hypocrite and selfish character (Vijay) is taken as a desi male representative (Rajkumar Rao perfectly slips into this role) who happily makes a bastard of himself from the very beginning of the film, just to make sure that our total sympathy goes for Rani (the innocent female victim).

From then on the film is about Rani’s journey, her struggle to blot out her past and achieve a certain level of self-confidence, her thrills in the roads of Paris and Amsterdam, making multi-ethnic friends, getting drunk and dancing on Bollywood remixes, indulging the firangs to have spicy panipuris – she does it all and in the process she rediscovers herself.

Now all this would have been much less entertaining and believable without the brilliance of Kangana Ranaut.

She is one of the very few Indian actresses of our times who is actually evolving, getting better in every film. From her early days of ‘Gangster’, ‘Woh Lamhe’ and ‘Life in a Metro’ (though she was pretty good in these films as well) Kangana has immensely matured as an actress as we see her in her later films ‘Fashion’, ‘Tanu weds Manu’, ‘Krrish 3’ and now certainly her best performance till date as Rani in the film ‘Queen’.

As the story goes:

Happy faces, loud music, semi-choreographed dance-steps – Rani’s pre-wedding celebrations have started. But the festivity gets abruptly curtailed when her fiancé Vijay takes the sudden decision to call off their wedding just a day before the ceremony. His excuse is simple yet dogmatic – according to Vijay his life has changed a lot since he went to London for business purpose and he is sure that Rani wouldn’t be able to adjust with him in the foreign land.

Now the heartbroken, conservative, middleclass Rani is left with nothing except her tears and her honeymoon tickets to Paris. After coming out of the initial shock Rani tells her family members (her parents, her chubby brother Chintu and her surprisingly modern granny) that she still wants to go to her honeymoon … alone.

With a touch of comedy perfectly blended with Rani’s innocence the film leaps into the foreign lands where after a short period of uncertainty Rani seems to meet all the right people and making friends out of everybody.

First was Vijayalakshmi, played by sultry Lisa Haydon who can be seen as the perfect alter ego of Rani. In Paris this sexy, ‘mixed Hindi French Spanish’ girl teaches Rani to enjoy the ultra-modern feminine life, to try fashionable clothes, to get drunk without a reason, to kiss boys ‘lip-to-lip’, take off the bra before going to the dance floor and also to keep a condom handy for the night.

Rani is thrilled and now on her way to Amsterdam.

There she has to share her room with three unknown boys Alexander, Taka and Tim (a white, an Asian and a black – a perfectly stereotype ethnic fusion) who eventually become her best buddies. And of course Marcello the cook who dares Rani to prove her theory that the Indians are the best kissers in the world. And how she proves it … my God … Rani’s first ‘lip to lip’ kiss!

Now there lies the success of the director Vikas Bahl as well as Kangana, they have successfully maintained the innocence of Rani’s character throughout the film even if she gets drunk and accuses her fiancé (without any proof though) of having sex with other girls in London, then she herself shares room with unknown boys (a sin in traditional Indian culture) and even kisses a sexy Italian man to prove her point.

Though Vijay suddenly u-turned his way to Amsterdam in search of Rani and tells her how sorry he is, how much he misses her and loves her and again wants to marry her, Rani this time played her cards not innocently but wisely. With her newly gained confidence and experience in life she knows exactly what to do with her selfish fiancé and how.

Music and Camera and Edit:

Amit Trivedi’s music once again takes us through a fantastic spectrum of emotions. Especially the song ‘London Thumakda’ is a true dance number from which you can’t escape.

Siddharth Diwan and Bobby Singh did a superb job with the camera; the sudden slow motions in high emotional situations are very well captured.

And the editors of the film are Abhijit Kokate, Karen Williams and none other than Anurag Kashyap (his first as an editor). And yes they have done a great job.

And finally:

Especial mention of the hilarious scene in an adult shop in Amsterdam where Kangana doesn’t have the slightest clue that the items she is looking at (even planning to buy for her family) are actually sex-toys and other kinky stuff.

Very innovatively as the film ends and the titles come up, Rani puts the pictures and videos of her entire journey on facebook where the number of likes and comments keeps multiplying.

In this part we see a picture of Vijay with the picture-name ‘kutta’ written and the likes and comments rises up speedily. The last touch of supreme feminism I guess.

Overall loved it, very entertaining and again an awesome performance by the lead actress. Watch it if you haven’t yet … you won’t regret it. Full paisa-wasul.

Nebraska (2013)

Nebraska review.

My ratings: 4/5.

Nebraska is a fusion of a person’s present, past and future. It’s about an old man’s present journey that takes him to his past in the hope of a brighter future.

nebraska-poster1An Oscar nominated film (nominated in six categories including ‘best film’ and ‘best director’) where simple human relations are portrayed sensitively sans all dramatic exaggerations; a special journey where faith and dignity walks on a tight rope.

The whole idea revolves around Woody Grant’s belief (a rather stupid belief) of winning a million in a lottery. Now Woody can’t drive, he is too old and frequently drunk, often a tad slow in his head but on the positive side he is determined to go to Nebraska and collect his million dollar winnings.

Played to perfection by Bruce Dern, the character of Woody Grant is probably best described towards the end of the film through a conversation between Woody’s son David and the receptionist.

Receptionist lady: Does he have Alzheimer’s?

David: No, he just believes what people tell him.

Receptionist lady: That’s too bad.     

Here director Alexander Payne makes fun of our current society (in his own tongue-in-cheek style) where the general norm is to disbelieve others. In that case Woody is an exception who foolishly enough dares to have faith in people.

nebraska-posterWoody makes it clear to everyone that with his million dollars he wants a new truck and an air compressor. Latter one night he confesses to his son David that with the rest of the money, all he wants is to leave it for his children. ‘That’s for you boys. I want to leave you something’ he insists.

At the very start of the film Woody’s foul-mouthed wife Kate (superbly enacted by June Squibb) along with his elder son Ross keep talking about putting Woody in a hole (a mental institution).

The younger son David seems to be the only sympathetic one (played by Will Forte). Though David’s own personal life is not at it’s peak (he recently broke up with his girlfriend) he decides to take his dad to a trip to Nebraska knowing perfectly well that the money part is a fantasy as he latter explains to his mother ‘what’s the harm in letting him have his own fantasy for a couple of more days?’

nebraska-poster1Alexander Payne in an interview at the BFI London Film Festival said something very interesting about the issue of taking care and trying to give enough dignity to our aged parents. According to him making our old parents happy is an act which is both selfless and selfish. Selfless for obvious reasons but selfish because by doing so we ourselves feel so noble-hearted and happy; in a way we are doing it for us.

Probably considering both these reasons David (who looks sad and tired throughout the film) plans to drive his father to Nebraska. A few times in the film David is accused of being just like his father; but the truth is that David’s love and patience towards his dad is the glue that holds everything else in the film.

nebraska-poster2Woody’s little road trip turns out way more exciting and nostalgic than he ever imagined. Starts with a quick tour to Mt.Rushmore, then Woody hits his head in a drunken accident, his teeth lost and found, and then a visit to Woody’s old neighborhood at Hawthorne where his brother Ray still resides, meets up with old friends (even girlfriends), a big time family reunion, and then Woody’s sudden fame in the small town as a would-be-millionaire and finally the moment when Woody shows his receipt and demands his million dollars. For the old man the journey is much more amusing than his final destination.

Cast and Camera:

Beautifully shot in black and white by Phedon Papamichael, the vast wide landscapes and the neatly framed indoors make the film a treat to watch.

Casting of the main characters are obviously well done, two of them (Bruce Dern and June Squibb) were nominated for their roles in the Oscars. But it’s the secondary characters that make the film look so realistic, Aunt Martha, Uncle Ray, Bart and Cole (the lazy cousins), Ed Pegram, Peg Nagy … just to name a few, all – every single one of them look so authentic and believable. I think for this film’s success casting played a huge role and John Jackson, the casting director did a splendid job.

Music and the straight-faced comedy:

Long drives in the picturesque wide roads are well taken care of by the soulful music of Mark Orton.

The comic situations and dialogues in this film are never too loud or forcefully ticklish but they will sure make you smile enough. Bob Nelson’s script is slow paced and subtle where even ordinary, day-to-day conversations seem funny and enjoyable.

And finally:

Dreaming of a million dollars; people congratulating him, singing songs, cheering and clapping for him – Woody relishes it all. It’s the great feeling of being the talk of the town; probably first time in his life he has become somebody important. Even at the end when he shows off his new truck and the compressor (both gifts from his son David), as he confidently drives by wearing a ‘prize winner’ printed cap (his consolation prize), he looks radiant and satisfied. Not rich but content.

Many people perceived Nebraska as a story of an emotional father-son bonding – well, yes evidently it is exactly that but again the film is also about basic human nature, their beliefs and relations; their lust and selfishness and about their courage and selflessness.  For those who haven’t seen the film yet, believe me you are missing out on something rare and classy.

Who cares for a million dollars after all, it all boils down to – as Woody instructs David ‘Have a drink with your old man. Be somebody!’

When Blue Jasmine rides A streetcar named Desire!

When Blue Jasmine rides A streetcar named Desire!

written by Souranath Banerjee

As I was watching the 1951 classic A Streetcar Named Desire (again), this time I couldn’t help but pause over this particular dialogue.

“Why, I guess he’s just not the type that goes for jasmine perfume”

Vivien Leigh in a state of nervous humor voiced the above quoted line to define Marlon Brando’s character in the film.

And then in 2013 (after more than 60 years) the name ‘Jasmine’ used by Woody Allen for the lead character in his latest film Blue Jasmine doesn’t seem all like a coincidence after all – huh?

A-Streetcar-Named-Desire-poster5In 1951 little did Vivien Leigh knew that Miss Blanche du Bois (the name of her character in A Streetcar Named Desire) would rise like a phoenix from the ashes of its past Oscar glory (Vivien Leigh won the Oscar in the best actress category that year) and soar high to the same heights (since Cate Blanchett also won the Oscar in the best actress category) – only this time her character’s name will be Jasmine!

Yes, in 2013 Woody Allen directed Blue Jasmine which in many ways is a modern and superficial comic version of the age-old classic A streetcar named desire directed by Elia Kazan. And Cate Blanchett masterfully plays the delusional sister who has lost everything in life and yet awaits to loose a lot more. 

Basic story structure. (This fits perfectly for both the films)

It is the story of a middle-aged woman who is robbed from her wealth, relations and social status; she comes to stay with her sister (her only family) in a desperate effort to live a better life.

She is too classy and refined for her new environment and thus has difficulty to cope up with her sister’s middle-class husbands/boyfriends. In her desperate attempt to survive she tries her best to fall in love. But unfortunately her scandalous past creeps up and crushes her sugary dreams of a happy future.

In the end she is more damaged than ever; delusional, helpless and alone in the unsympathetic world. A slow and brutal tale of human degradation, of failure and disappointment marvelously captured by both Elia Kazan and Woody Allen through their individualistic cinematic approach.

Personally I am so disturbed by the tragic ending(s). In a way it’s so real and possible – that’s why all the more scary.

 Jasmine Vs Blanche.

The basic contrast between Jasmine (in Blue Jasmine) and Blanche (in A streetcar named desire) lies in the core reason of their complexity.

streetcar-named-desire-poster1For instance Jasmine’s primary problem is the forced degradation of her social status/class. She declares herself broke but couldn’t get rid of her past expensive habits of flying first-class, tipping her taxi driver extra-good, carrying expensive fashionable bags; and she seems to have lost touch with the fact that people actually do work for their living.

On the other hand Blanche’s principal complication is related to her own fading looks (the negative effects of aging) which according to her leads to lack of companionship. She needs make-up and hot baths in regular intervals; extremely conscious about her looks, she craves compliments for her face, figure, hair, clothes, jewelries …

They were both happy in their own worlds but alas! – they are bankrupt and they both carry the burden of the tainted hidden secrets from their pasts. Their back-stories are pretty different but equally disturbing and they often intend to survive their past memories by having a drink or two.

“Who do you have to sleep with around here to get a Stoli martini with a twist of lemon?” – Jasmine.

Blue-Jasmine-posterAt the very beginning Jasmine flies from New York to San Francisco to her sister’s place blabbering all about her broken life story, then she takes the regular taxi to arrive at her destination. Whereas Blanche takes the train from Auriol to New Orleans and then takes the dramatically named streetcar called Desire to reach her destination.

Blanche gets to arrive in a much more dramatic way (even her first appearance is very noticeable as she mysteriously appears from behind the smokes and the crowd).

I feel that the amount of emotional drama is much more heightened as Elia Kazan (very much intentionally) compels us to take a roller-coaster ride through a series of extreme melodramatic highs and lows of emotions in his film A street car named desire. On contrary in Blue Jasmine (I am sure it’s again a deliberate decision) Woody Allen keeps all of it a tad subtle and wickedly comic, but mind you the overall emotional effect the film delivers is not played softly at all.

street-car-named-desire-posterThough Jasmine doesn’t have to face any physical violence (rape) as compared to unfortunate Blanche, but the rejection from their respective lovers, the dismissal from their sisters as well as the rest of the society is enough for them to loose their mind completely.

In Blue Jasmine the informative flashbacks are cleverly used in regular intervals to break the linear pattern of storytelling. Whereas in A streetcar named desire the vocal echo of certain words and memories (and also the sound of a shot fired) are beautifully layered as a continuous remembrance of the past and a constant proof of Blanche’s unstable mind.

And lastly the brilliant use of music – Blue Moon and the polka tune of Varsouviana.

Blue-jasmine-poster1Blanche (Vivien Leigh) often in a melancholy way felt nostalgic recalling the music to which she danced the Varsouviana; sometimes she would even imagine the same polka-tune playing in her head, the one they were playing in the Moon Lake Casino that tragic night when soon after her young lover Allan committed suicide.

On the other hand a unique way of portraying Jasmine’s blue world, Woody Allen used the song ‘Blue Moon’ not only as a music piece but a simple link to Jasmine’s once happy past; the song which was playing when she first met her husband Hal at a party. Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) repeats this romantic ‘Blue Moon’ story five times throughout the film to anyone who would care (or dare) to listen, and each time you cannot help but smile at her – a sad smile perhaps.

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Poster courtesy: www.imdb.comwww.impawards.com.

Highway (2014)

Highway review.

Written by Souranath Banerjee.

My Ratings: 4/5.

Recently saw director Imtiaz Ali‘s latest film Highway. A good experience – full of emotions and genuine performances.

But before probing into the film’s story-structure lets consider these two archetypes:

Story No 1. – You probably know the story of the princess who gets bored living the mundane, affluent life in her palace. She feels confined and skeptical about marrying the stereotype prince and all she wishes is to experience the real world. In the bizarre realm of cinema these kind of adventurous wishes are promptly granted and before you know it (or rather she knows it) our beloved princess gets sucked into the wicked but exciting, sometimes too-real-to-handle vortex of a thrilling new life. Highway-poster1Least assured she has the excitements of a lifetime and almost invariably finds the love of her life (generally a common man with sharp features who is largely responsible for keeping her safe from the bad, bad world through out her adventure).

This story version is very popular in Hollywood and two best examples are Princess Jasmine from animated feature Aladdin (1992), Rose in Titanic (1997).

Story No 2. – This time a different story but I am sure you know this one as well. A girl and a boy (specifically a rich girl and a poor boy) who are forced by certain unforeseen/unavoidable circumstances to stay together in very close proximity for long enough till they fall in love. These two must have dissimilar backgrounds and social class, contrast features and habits, different upbringings – the more incompatible the better! They should loathe each other at the start but finally they will be all sticky in love. Then it’s time for the parents to interfere. Usually the rich girl’s parents are more of a pain in the ass and the film ending totally depends on them – if they accept the good-for-nothing guy then it’s a love story (99% times that’s the case) but if they reject him (the other 1%), then it’s a tragedy.

This story version is extremely popular in Bollywood and two prominent examples are Raj and Simran in Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995), Raghu and Pooja in Dil Hai Ki Manta Nahin (1991). 

highway-poster3Well, now bake these above two stories (the primary ingredients) and you have the base prepared. Now to make it smell different add the concept of Stockholm syndrome (where the kidnapped person falls for his/her kidnapper) and delicately sprinkle some sensitive issues of childhood trauma.

Highway is ready to serve.

Looks like an easy dish to prepare but I assure you it’s not. Only expert chiefs with the caliber and imagination of Imtiaz Ali can bring such unique flavors, where the actors and their emotions are marinated to perfection.

Brilliant performances – Alia Bhatt is so natural and spontaneous; she has managed to eclipse a much senior and gifted actor Randeep Hooda (Randeep has also done justice to his character but perhaps a bit less-utilized). The decision to cast Alia for the role was the trump and it really paid off (Imtiaz wasn’t that lucky in his earlier film Rockstar when he casted Nargis Fakhri in the lead role).

HIghway-posterIn a nutshell Highway is all about this fun-loving, rich, ‘bride-to-be’, young girl Veera Tripathi (Alia Bhatt) – what happens when her life takes a wretched turn as she gets kidnapped by a crude, merciless criminal Mahabir Bhati (Randeep Hooda) – and finally how this unfortunate event changes her – she experiences love, her dreams come true and she learns to see the world from a different perspective.

Oscar winning composer A.R.Rahman‘s soulful music is skillfully weaved throughout the film to smoothen the bumps on the highway. (Thankfully not a single abrupt/forced song sequence added).

The attractive highway sequences seen mostly from the point of view of a moving vehicle (the truck) are always layered by the humming of the truck-engine to give the audience a feel of being a part of the journey. Excellent sound designing throughout the film – thanks to Amrit Pritam Dutta and the Oscar winning sound designer Resul Pookutty.

highway-poster2No high-end camera rigs used, no artificial lights (in most of the shots), very less use of make-up for the actors, no extreme image manipulation in the post-production; credit goes to the cinematographer Anil Mehta who still managed to make the film look classy.

Two emotional sequences worth mentioning – one of Alia crying and laughing at the same time as she let herself go and the other one where Mahabir cries watching Veera making food and cleaning their new home in the mountains, very touchy and superb performances by the actors.

A scenic journey through Delhi, Haryana, Rajasthan, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh and Kashmir, seat back and enjoy the emotional love story of Veera and Mahabir as they hit the highways.

Highway is a film that will engage you, entertain you and in a certain level make you uncomfortable.

P.S – A note of comparison: There’s the scene where Veera confronts her uncle in front of other family members – she accuses him of abusing her when she was nine years old. I feel that Mira Nair handled the same kind of situation in her film Monsoon Wedding (2001) much better when the child abuser (played by Rajat Kapoor) gets accused by the victim (played by Shefali Shetty).