Friday, January 16, 2015

PK (2014)

"Peekay ho kya?" is a question I feel like asking Mr. Rajkumar Hirani. Even a four year old can see that it's a grammatically incorrect sentence. However in Mr. Hirani's world, everyone makes the same erroneous choice of words while asking the confused, moronic looking alien (Aamir Khan) if he is drunk. Now the correct way to frame that question would be "Peekay aaye ho kya?" or "Peeye ho kya?" But no...everyone says it like a C-grade grammar pupil just for the sake of creating an age old pun and somehow giving the eponymous character his name in a poorly contrived, lame joke!

Anyway, so this PK arrives on the planet, to do some research! And yet, he isn't with a team. He is alone, stark naked (a nod to Arnold Schwarzenegger's entry in "The Terminator" (1984))?, with just one trinket around his neck as the only means of contacting his planet or his ship. This is a life-form emotionally, physically and physiologically similar to human beings, yet far more technologically advanced and intelligent.

Hell, they even have special powers by which they can read minds, and download an entire language database from a human being by simply holding their hands. They can even transfer their writing skills, language no bar. Such marvelous beings, and yet, they are dumb enough to send a single organism from their planet, wearing a removable remote control! Because if they allowed any backup contact mechanism on his person, then the rest of the plot would fall flat on its face. Fine...this contrivance excused, but with great hesitation!

Moving on, this sweet, emotional, sentimental alien finds himself lost and depressed when his exotic looking trinket gets stolen by a local countryman somewhere in Rajasthan. His only means to contact his planet or his species is gone! What amazing security measures for their research scientists. There is absolutely nothing else that he can use to communicate. Hell even the beastly "Predator" (1987) had some push-button gizmo built within his arm!

The alien struggles to survive on planet earth, by stealing clothes from dancing cars, which are shockingly in abundance in small Indian towns in Hirani's world. The dancing car is basically a visual result of couples having sex in cars. I mean, whatever happened to motel rooms and dingy bed and breakfast lodges? There's a limit to which you can repeat the same gag. It loses not only its humour quotient, but also any logic if at all...for not all of them make out in cars, and not all of them have to start dancing!

Later, fate lands him in the company of Bhairon (a bloated Sanjay Dutt) who takes him to a brothel, from where the alien finally picks up an Indian language (Bhojpuri in this case) and is able to convey that he is looking for his "Remote-wa"! (No wonder the film was made tax free in Uttar Pradesh!). And guess what Bhairon does? He merely infers that it is likely the trinket has been sold off in Delhi! That becomes the alien's first clue and he travels to Delhi. No surprises for guessing that that is where he eventually finds the trinket! What a small world, eh?

Nevertheless, it is in Delhi that his quest for the trinket lands him his name and also gives him his new mission: the search for God! Why? Because as the Indian colloquialism would have it, whenever he asks someone they all reply with either "God knows" or "Only God can help you" or "Trust God".

But little does the alien, now christened "PK" know that what he is dealing with is the land of a multitude of Gods and religions! Who shall he seek out? And who will ultimately return his trinket? The quest ultimately lands PK in a quagmire of organized religion and fake Godmen. Unbeknownst to him, he finds himself becoming a media created icon out to expose fakers acting as messengers of Gods, taking advantage of the poor and the ignorant and playing on their faith. One of these Godmen is Tapasvi Maharaj (Saurabh Shukla), who also happens to hold P.K's trinket, claiming it to be something that belonged to Lord Shiva!

P.K, in turn, is manipulated by a duck-billed Anushka Sharma, who one may easily confuse for Donald Duck had it not been for the lack of the sailor hat. A bird nest wig makes up for it, nevertheless. The spunky journalist is the only one who knows of PK's true identity.

And thus, Mr. Hirani and team manoeuvre their puck with so many ridiculously forced situations in order to manipulate the plot in their chosen direction, that you lose count. The entire film follows the Hirani textbook formula. Add loads of cheese, schmaltz, some unnecessary romance, uninspired song and dance numbers, a messiah-like hero, and touch upon pertinent issues with lots of sugar on top in the form of humour, and voila! You got a perfect weekend mega blockbuster, with the 1000 crore currency notes showing and fluttering all over the place AND a tag of being offbeat.

Speaking of romance, there's a poorly written romantic subplot revolving around Anushka's character and her Pakistani beau Sarfaraz (Sushant Singh Rajput, who's awful to say the least; one wonders how he even got this far). This romantic subplot comes full circle in a sickeningly contrived and ludicrous, laughable climax, where the subplot becomes the main plot and on its weak foundation rests the denouement that should actually have been magnanimous, cathartic and earth-shaking.

But Hirani chooses to chicken out and screw it all up with a cheap conclusion, while poorly putting across an India-Pakistan harmony sentiment. And sure enough, that scene takes away any credibility, or weight from the plot that boasts of being brave and audacious, taking on organized religion, causing hullabaloo amongst right wing protectors of various religions and whatnot! But the truth is, there is about one teaspoonful of mature, meaningful ideas sprinkled in a bucketful of utter rubbish that borders on juvenility.

The ideas of religious dogmatism, the middlemen in religion, and their questionable practices are barely touched upon. The rest of it is purely an exercise in silliness. The attempt to make a trendy new catchphrase, 'Wrong number' in this case, is forced and rather inchoate, compared to the earlier more popular catchphrases like 'Gandhigiri' and 'Jadoo ki Jhappi' in Hirani's Munnabhai films. In essence, the film bears a resemblance to the poser Godmen it attempts to expose, for it is nothing more than overcooked fluff, donning the garb of intelligence, trying hard to be intellectual and socially relevant, and claiming to be a clever satire.

Mr. Aamir 'Perfectionist' Khan mostly hams it up as expected, except in a few scenes where he shines with his authentic Bhojpuri accent. It is that one sequence surrounding a stage performer in the garb of Lord Shiva that brings in some good laughs. That, and the attempt to exchange a Gandhi image for food. Anushka is okay, and Mr. Boman Irani who had been the other star in Hirani's Munnabhai films is reduced to a thankless and forgettable role here.

Just when you think the senselessness may have passed as the film enters its penultimate moments, you get a sappy exchange between a love-lorn P.K (yes, this alien falls in love too!) and Anushka's character. In this scene, we learn that PK is carrying a huge trunk of Duracell batteries (yeah!) with him back to his planet for he doesn't get them there, and wishes to play some audio tape! So here's an alien species that has made and powered spaceships to fly across planets, but they lack the technology to play audio equipment? Sigh!

Score: 3/10

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Force Majeure (2014)

You are out somewhere in the company of your close-knit family. You are a healthy family with a strong bond established over the years. You are well-respected in your family and everyone looks up to you. It's a happy, glorious day and everyone's having a good time. And suddenly out of nowhere, you are faced with a possible force majeure, a so-called act of God, an unforeseen cataclysmic event. You act on impulse, the first thing that comes to your mind, albeit not the most ideal thing to do. In the end, everyone is safe and sound. But your instinctive reaction becomes a parameter of your being and significantly ends up altering your image in the eyes of your loved ones.

Swedish filmmaker Ruben Östlund presents an unusual scenario such as this, hardly ever explored in cinema, as the central premise of his refreshingly original new film, "Force Majeure" (2014). A sweet, happy little family of four, Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke), his wife Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) and their two kids go out on a skiing trip to the French Alps. It's all going well until at lunch one day, there occurs, what's actually a controlled avalanche charging straight towards the family.

Only it appears to go a little too out of control, prima facie, giving everyone a shock of their lives. As a result, Tomas who initially rubbishes any possibility of danger, suddenly goes for the run the next second, seemingly as a reflex, leaving the kids and his wife behind. The avalanche, sure enough, settles at a safe distance. The frame goes all white. And then the thick fog clears within a minute. Everyone returns to their table. No harm done, no one is hurt. Well, not physically at least, but this controlled avalanche triggers an almost uncontrollable avalanche of emotions that disturbs the peace of the family. 

Via some clever writing and characterization, deliciously soaked in some savagely funny dark humour, Östlund presents a fascinating psychological study of differing perceptions and varying magnitudes of reaction to a single incident. Through the situation of a genuine scare and the petrifying feeling of having had a brush with death, Östlund explores a shift in family dynamics and several other quirks of human nature that lay exposed in the aftermath. On one hand, he examines a man's primal instinct in the face of death or any other grave danger. On the other, he paints a very realistic and instantly relatable picture of the effects of this action on his image stemming from the judgmental tendencies of others around him, specifically his loved ones. 

Post the episode, Ebba is broken-hearted. She loses sleep and develops a strong feeling of doubt and insecurity. A sense of trust built over the years in her husband is suddenly shattered. The hilarity of it all stems from how Ebba is simply unable to let go of the incident and the feeling. She even harps on about how Tomas remembered to take his phone along but didn't bother to look at the kids (a dig at the addiction of the modern man to his phone?). In the end it is all fine, but she keeps bringing the topic up in front of complete strangers, and ends up making a whole gathering rather awkward to sit through. It is not unconvincing at all, given Ebba's take on the whole definition of family bonding and mutual trust, which we are given a hint of in an earlier scene in which she gets all worked up about a supposedly committed female friend's casual wantonness.

In one of the best scenes of the film, Tomas' old friend Mats (Kristofer Hivju) visits with his very young girlfriend. A drunk Ebba brings up the subject again, leaving the atmosphere all unpleasant and Tomas all embarrassed and dejected. Mats breaks the ice with a long explanation, all the while defending his old pal with justifications that range from extremely logical to immensely hilarious.

Kudos to Mr. Östlund for penning and directing such obvious reactions from his characters, given their personae. We can't help but chuckle at the ensuing debate and the farce of it all, despite seeing a weepy, disappointed Ebba on screen and her nervous restlessness. But for all her quashed expectations about her husband, and allegations of irresponsibility, we get a glimpse of how Ebba's own sense of responsibility is questionable, in at least two nuanced scenes that Östlund slyly inserts. And just when we think the genius can't go any farther, we see the baton of over-analysis being passed on to this new couple of Mats and his girl who continue the argument all the way to their own hotel room. Mats is now all sleepless, the bug firmly planted in his head, fueled by an innocuous passing remark made by his girl. Brilliant writing all the way! 

Meanwhile, all poor Tomas needs is a slight ego boost after a mighty fall in his wife's eyes, and in yet another outstanding sequence in an open bar on the Alps, he gets one, only momentarily. Adding to his woes is a chicken sticker stuck on his hotel room door that he furiously goes on to remove. It could very well have been put there by the kids playing around and the cartoon of the chicken a mere coincidence, but it adds a funny little salt-in-the-wound touch. But one can't rule out the possibility of it being an anonymous prank either. Could it be Ebba who does it just to rub it in? Or that mysterious house-keeping guy who always watches the couple from a distance? He doesn't fit in curve of the film except as merely an observer who somehow reminds of the enigmatic silent observer seen in Krzysztof Kieślowski's "The Decalogue". 

Östlund is careful not to miss out the finer details while focusing on his primary characters, and thus ensures that he also shifts the spotlight on the kids once in a while. The children begin to realize that something is amiss between their parents and are scared that they might divorce. Peace and family harmony seems to be irrevocably destroyed, at least until the final act. But a meticulous writer that Östlund is, he skilfully avoids contrivances and cliches and wraps it up in a very satisfying and convincing manner. He even adds a tinge of some romanticism and a fairy tale flavour that references a pertinent point about how we have all grown up hearing fables of heroism and chivalry, but reality is a completely different ball game. 

Östlund pulls it off with stupendous performances from all of the primary cast, most notably, Lisa Loven Kongsli as the emotional wreck, Ebba and Kristofer Hivju, as Mats. Hivju gets about three major scenes and completely chews the scenery with his bravura supporting act. If it is not the drama that keeps you transfixed while you enjoy the engaging character interactions, it is the fabulous cinematography that captures the beautiful landscapes of the Alps that mesmerize you and entice you to go on a skiing trip.

"Force Majeure" is a unique, sparkling little gem of a dramedy from the Scandinavian land that deserves all the attention. Standing ovation, Mr. Ruben Östlund.

Score: 10/10

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Iron Island (2005)

***NOTE: The following analysis/review may contain MILD SPOILERS regarding some detail in the film, but not to the extent of making the film viewing experience any lesser.***

Iranian filmmaker Mohammad Rasoulof, who helmed the poetic and heavily allegorical "The White Meadows" (2009) had created something to similar effect earlier in this interesting 2005 drama, "Iron Island" (aka Jazireh Ahani). This is yet another fable-like tale, a veiled allegory full of visual metaphors and symbolism that one can instantly connect to the general sociopolitical environment in contemporary Iran.

Old man Nemat (Ali Nassirian), with his commanding presence, replete with a thick moustache, and a turban has harboured an entire community of needy individuals and their families on an abandoned old oil tanker in the middle of the sea. The locals who need shelter are provided one on this ship along with a small-time job in a self-contained small industry of sorts on board. Useless metal parts of the ship are disassembled and sold ashore as scrap. Women on board engage in making what they call burqas, but they are actually eye masks! 

Other young men do odd jobs around with no payment, but their wages compensate for their rentals in a way, all duly accounted for in Nemat's diary. It's like a whole cult of squatters all thriving under the kind shelter of their messiah, Nemat, who is, not surprisingly referred to as The Captain (of the ship, of course!). A single mobile phone is kept on board, and calling services are rented out to the inhabitants.

Nemat is the self-appointed leader of his offbeat crew. Admired and respected, but also feared, he isn't really tyrannical or ruthless. In fact, he appears to be a father figure with a polite demeanor. Exceptions are some stray incidents that invoke his wrath. It is then that his leadership starts to resemble an authoritarian autocracy. But he also looks after his crew, as is evident from some phone calls, albeit not without a hint of some personal gain as well.

It is one terrific characterization that keeps the persona of this figure deliberately ambiguous. The display of altruism is not an unorthodox one. The man has his rules. As long as they are followed and things go his way, it all proceeds smoothly. Thereby, Nemat is like the perfect balance between a dictator and a messiah! He even offers to bring good marriage alliances for the daughters of families on the ship. Only when there are errors, such as disobedience or amorous activities against his will, then there is the wrath! The guilty aren't let off easily. There are consequences, there are punishments!

The ship has its share of a motley of strange characters, that represent the byproducts of an environment of repression. So if there is a dictator, there has to be a rebel. One youngster, Ahmad (Hossein Farzi-Zadeh) who falls in love with an engaged girl on the ship and attempts to flee becomes the epitome of resistance in this case. What befalls him as a consequence represents the plight of any liberal thinker who dares to speak against a fascist government body. 

There is one little boy fondly named Baby Fish! He collects fish who stray into the ship's hold and sets them free by releasing them into the sea. He is the epitome of liberty, the symbol of freedom. On one instance Nemat catches him doing this task of releasing fish in the sea. Nemat is alarmed; he just takes the fish from the boy's hands and throws them back inside the hold. "When they grow bigger, we will catch them and eat them", he says! A statement that pretty much echoes and sums up the exploitative tactics of this old man, feeding off the blind faith of his followers.

And then there is this quirky old Uncle Sadegh, who spends his entire time staring with great expectations in direction of the sun, looking for something. He claims he has spent a lot of time doing it, but still cannot see anything. What is he looking for? A ray of hope perhaps? A light that would lead them out of the darkness and suffocation and into the light and fresh air?

The vessel in which these people thrive is a direct metaphor for a trapped existence. It serves as a microcosm of a claustrophobic, controlled environment from which there is seemingly no escape. And what's more, this ship is gradually sinking, as the sole teacher on board points out with his new scientific invention. It is a genius literal reference to the systematic deterioration of a society in a controlled atmosphere of fundamentalist tendencies. Of course, Nemat promptly poo-poos the teacher's claim away! 

The teacher is the voice of reason, the only independent thinker, also stifled by the iron hand of Nemat. The teacher eventually does make some attempt to get his voice heard, by including subliminal warning messages in his teachings imparted to the kids on board! Isn't this what liberal thinkers do? Educate, criticize, and awaken through their books, through their art, through their films? How ironical then, that this teacher makes his own writing chalks with the aid of empty rifle cartridges!

In the end, if the teacher says, the ship will sink some day, then it will! So, does old Nemat have a plan in place for saving his beloved crew? It seems so, when an exodus from sea to the land eventually occurs and Nemat promises them a town, their own promised land, which when we finally see, raises a lot of questions. The group waits for their leader to arrive, and as the guide of the crowd looks towards the road, awaiting his leader, the old uncle continues staring at the sun again, in an awe-inspiring composition, in a single frame. He is clearly the wise one, the cynical one in an environment such as this!

While the old man continues his search for the light, another rebel takes birth as Baby Fish chooses to not follow their leader and runs towards the sea, at a future uncertain. The voice of liberty and freedom walks away from the herd, much like the filmmakers and artists of Iran who chose a self-imposed exile rather than have their voices shoved back into their throats by the powers that be!

"Iron Island" isn't as haunting a cinematic experience as "The White Meadows" but it certainly merits a viewing and much more recognition as a brave and clever work of cinema from a talented filmmaker.

Score: 9/10