Hemlock Society ( Bengali)

Hemlock Society is a 2012 release.
The film is a highly stylized dark comedy and uses reverse psychology to bring out the fear of death among the suicidal.
The story revolves around a young and independent girl, Meghna, who feels emotionally bankrupt – she is unhappy with her father’s remarriage and feels worse when her fiancée rejects her. She goes into a drugstore and buys more sleeping pills than she needs and one Anand Kar( pl. note , translation is ‘be joyful’) spots and follows her. He introduces himself as the founder of Hemlock Society which assists people in the perfect suicide. He takes her to the society where she undergoes training (which is actually a faux training) for three days after which she declares that she no longer wants to commit suicide.
The plot is predictable. What makes the movie interesting is the ‘learnings’ that the training sessions provide. For instance, Anand Kar accuses Meghna of being a ‘dukho-vilasini’ – a person who revels in sorrow. And this might be true of many who contemplate suicide. During the ‘training’, one of the instructors (who is actually a trained actor ) suggests that there is really not much difference between committing suicide and living your life. A ponderable, that.
The dialogue is often whacky and deliberately absurd; the scenes are a well designed sequence of the real and the theatrical. Both these devices delineate the act of suicide from the backdrop of life and effectively show its utter senselessness, by stripping it of its tragic element. The treatment is a refreshing change from the usual melodrama that shows suicide attempters as victims.
These bits of brilliance are somewhat dulled by the over the top joie de vivre of the principal character Anand Kar, designed along the lines of Anand of the eponymous Hindi film of the 70s . The character tries too hard to connect to a younger Hindi-film watching audience, though Parambrata Chatterjee’s natural charm does make things better. Meghna dresses trendy, smiles with difficulty and utters the banal lines she is given with minimal lip movement. Rupa Ganguly and Dipankar Dey do an accomplished job as Meghna’s step mother and father, respectively. The love angle between Meghna and Anand could also have been avoided.
Nevertheless, Hemlock Society is different and interesting and there is a certain skewedness about many scenes that needs to be appreciated.

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Two Good Films

Two good films
This Friday afternoon, I drove 20km in the sun to PVR, probably the only commercial cinema theatre in Pune that shows documentaries. My target was the much acclaimed ‘The World Before Her’, produced by Anurag Kashyap and directed by Nisha Pahuja.
Women aspiring to freedom and to an identity, the route they take to get there, the sacrifices they make – are the ingredients of this no-frills portrayal. Whether they achieve the quality in their lives is left to the audience to decide.
The roughly two hour film constantly criss-crosses between the tough-as nails Durga Vahini training/indoctrination on the one hand and the Femina Miss India Contest,2011 on the other.
The protagonist in the first story is the feisty Prachi who rules her teenage wards with an iron fist sans the velvet glove in the Durga Vahini summer training camp. Her insouciant claim of herself as both boy and girl is as naïve as her reasons for heading the camp (“It’s nice when people are scared of you”). She is vocal about her passion for the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and its ways. Equally passionate is Ruhi Singh, a contender for the Miss India World crown. She hails from Jaipur and enjoys the encouragement of her supportive middle-class parent. She has never been ‘first’ in her life, although she has participated in several pageants and this time she is sure she will make it.
The film moves on to compare the hard regimes in both camps. At the Durga Vahini camp, there is a spate of what seem to be guest speakers whose themes range from advocacy of early marriage to fostering anti-Muslim and anti-Christian values to the devil that is vanity. I was confused at how this blended with their training in the martial arts , but strangely it enthused the young girls, who simply went on to parrot what they heard. This complete domination of emotion and spirit is echoed in the Femina Miss World training where a cosmetologist expertly dismisses the feeble protests of a contestant to proceed with Botox aid so her chin may appear a fraction of a centimeter longer. The girls are made fairer, waxed and trimmed within an inch of their lives and made into gorgeous Barbies, all clones, all under the pretext of finding their identity and expression.
The film also brings us other endearing and honest characters in both stories. Chinmayee, a bright and earnest trainee at Durga Vahini broke my heart with her proud acknowledgement of having no Muslim friends and her joyful endorsement of the ‘brainprint’ that the Durga Vahini Camp left on her mind. Her nonchalant “ If I forget what I learn here, I will come back again and again” chilled me. Ankita Shorey’s practical approach to the whole business of winning the crown was an eye opener.
The film has a lot more nuances, which the director delicately unfolds, never offering her own commentary and thus forcing the audience to arrive at their own conclusion. I came away somewhat shocked and wiser.
The other film, Club 60,was an unashamed feel good film with a simple message that we grow old, we all have sorrows and to live life is to leave the past behind and enjoy the present.
To this end, Sanjay Tripathy and team invested in talented actors Farooque Sheikh, Sarika, Raghubir Yadav, Satish Shah, Tinnu Anand and Sarat Saxena. Farooque Shelkh and Sarika, a successful doctor couple, have recently lost their grown up son and have moved to Mumbai to start afresh. The clinically depressed Farooque tried to take his life and therefore his wife starts pushing him towards a social group – Club 60 . Initially reluctant, the reticent man gradually warms to the groups as he learns more and more about them.
We learn of neglect by children, of bereavements and so on. There is laughter and there are tears. Club 60 released last year, but I only got to watch it now.The film ends when Raghubir Yadav, the glue that holds the group has to be operated on and Farooque the neurosurgeon rises to the occasion.
The characters are consistently loud, not what we see in real life, but I guess that is what it takes to drive home the point, the point being ‘live the present fully’.
With increasing lifespans, and large numbers of seniors looking to age productively and with dignity, this movie is a shot in the arm to those who may be hovering over despair.
It is gentle and predictable, but I still wanted to see it to the end. Not recommended for hard core adventure-seekers.

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Sunshine YELLOW (Marathi)

An unapologetically optimistic movie about the triumphs of a child who has Down’s syndrome! Having watched this film, it would be blasphemous to say ‘suffering’ from Down’s syndrome.
Yellow is a true life story of Pune girl Gauri Gadgil, who won a Silver, in Swimming, at the Special Olympics. From being attention – deficit to manfully undergoing the rigours that make national champions, the child does it all. She never cries, and smiles at everything that comes her way. Her IQ of 65 obviously is partially responsible for this. She is slow to understand, learns only through repetition, has huge volumes of patience…and what she doesn’t like, she simply shoves into the swimming pool, and that includes her swimming coach!
The film plays out her story in detail and the audience begins to feel her mother’s tensions and delights in the uncle’s faith and commonsense view of life. Barring her father who abandoned the mother and his child, everyone else who Gauri meets is extremely helpful and joyful. This may be a tad unrealistic, but it does reinforce the idea that help for the differently-abled begins with a positive outlook. A couple of times the script falters with tedious explanations of something related to teaching special children. But that is necessary to explain to a lay audience. Moreover, the flawless performances of Mrinal Kulkarni as her mother and the inimitable Upendra Limaye as the coach who drove her to fame hide the ‘scriptly’ bumps.
The intriguingly titled film has a lot to offer in terms of real location (my beloved Pune) and some good camera work at the swimming pool. Yellow ends with Gauri Gadgil assuring people “You Can Do It” – you can offer active help to children who need it. That is the real purpose of the film – AWARENESS AND ACTION!

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Reel Royal Revelry

Queen – it was young, it was fun, and it was predictable. And the last is completely excused because of the sheer joy and optimism the film and its queen, Rani (Kangana’s character in the film), exuded.
If you’ve seem English Vinglish, you kinda know where the film is headed. The behenji from Lajpat Nagar is younger than Sridevi’s Shashi and does more young things like drinking and dancing and staying at hostels. She triumphs in the end, values and virginity intact, all through her stay at La Paris and Amsterdam. She meets with a heart-of-gold hotel maid, Vijayalakshmi (Lisa Hayden) in Paris; shares a hostel room with three men from different countries and they become good friends. The average cine viewer gets his money’s worth of delicious glimpses of foreign lands. A few pleasant adventures later, Rani returns to India, breaks of with supercilious-mama’s boy fiancé ( played expertly by Rajkummar Yadav) and reclaims her dignity and self worth. Kudos to that.
Kangana rocks . I loved the attention to her every detail – the choice of words, the manner of delivery and every nuanced expression with which she delights the camera. Costumes – suits to a T. The Delhi locations look like they were shot in a friend’s house – very, very real. Congratulations to director Vikas Bahl and his team.
If Kangana and Lisa Hayden are not at least nominated for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress respectively, I shall be very surprised.

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of humanity and cruelty

If you can stomach the stark, do watch Twelve Years a Slave.
It was a humbling experience.
The absolute extremes of human behavior come alive through the engrossing screenplay that does complete justice to Solomon Northup’s horrifying tale of being kidnapped and spending twelve years as a slave.
The well-to-do American ‘free’ Negro, Solomon ( played with finesse by Chiwetel Ejiofor), is led by two white men to Washington, drugged and shipped off as a slave, further south. He is beaten into calling himself Platt; he finds it prudent to hide his education and intelligence. His various attempts to establish his identity and procure his ‘free’ papers come to nought, until he is sold at his third plantation to the vile Edward Epps.
After seemingly unending years of torture – the pain of separation from his family, dealing with the master’s unreasoning contempt and his idiosyncratic, inhuman demands, watching fellow slaves beaten and raped if they so much as opened their mouths, called beast and treated worse – he happens to meet a sympathetic Canadian carpenter ( Brad Pitt) who directs the right people to find him and free him.
What makes this film special?
The sheer humanness of Solomon. First – his total compassion for and understanding of human needs. In one of the first few scenes, slaves are being transported in a ship and his encounter with another slave, a woman, is at once primordial and spiritual. Solomon’s large expressive eyes tell of his simmering, burgeoning anger, his utter contempt for white fools, his helplessness at being unable to help Patsy, the young repeatedly raped slave girl and his regret at having to leave her behind as he makes his way back to freedom and his family ( wife and now grown up children).
The portrait of cruelty and delusion of power. Many scenes stand out. One is when Solomon ( then with a sympathetic master Mr Ford, played by Benedict Cumberbatch) thrashes a white overseer, the man returns with two friends and puts a noose around Solomon’s neck and hangs him from a tree. The timely intervention by the senior overseer, also white, saves Solomon from completely swinging away to his death. But a slave cannot go unpunished for attacking a white man. Thus Solomon is left with the noose around his neck, suspended from the tree, balancing his life on his toes, from morning till dusk. A scared housemaid comes and gives him a few sips of water. The plantation goes about business as usual and only when Ford returns home and rushes to cut the taut rope is Solomon freed from his agony. The background is slowed down a little for effect; cotton pickers, gardeners, cleaners, children playing move in slow motion to form the blurred, idyllic backdrop to the hanging, gasping Solomon. The sounds are chilling – Solomon’s ragged rasp contrasting with the giggles of the playing children and the distant voice of a slave woman.
The director Steve McQueen’s sequences unfold slowly and he uses a number of close-ups, leaving the audience no escape from the fear and anguish of those enslaved. A brilliant film with extraordinary performances, it forces you to think about cruelty and humanity, no matter which era or continent you live in.

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Revisiting the Classics


I had a feast this week, watched Anna Karenina and Dorian Gray on TV.

My initial reaction, when I watch such fabulously made films on TV is – ‘Oh! Why did I miss this in the theatre.’

My only reason for watching Anna Karenina was Kiera Knightley; I had tried unsuccessfully to read the unabridged novel when I was younger, but I just did not have the taste for it. I began watching, prepared for ‘dull grey’, but I simply could not take my eyes off the screen, from the word GO.

The film began unconventionally as if on a stage. I loved the way the painted curtain rose to reveal a room, as if on a stage, and then the whole thing seamlessly dissolved into a regular set or outdoor location. This happens throughout the film. I suspect that the director (Joe Wright, more on him, in a minute) has used this technique to encapsulate huge segments of the story, bridge time and travel and avoid a lot of unnecessary dialogue. Anna’s little son is playing with a toy train when she tells him of her impending trip to Moscow and the little model train morphs into a gorgeous, snow encrusted steam engine and its train. Anna alights at the platform, and the frame is frozen to show a typical platform scene. Anna ascends the stairs, meanders into the large complicated backstage structure ( ropes and pulleys etc) of the theatre of the times, only to emerge upstage and descend, merge with the audience and become part of a regular cinematic scene.

In this unashamed auteur film, Joe Wrights also freezes part of the frame at times; the two principal characters remain on stage, while the rest suddenly become part of the audience. The characters saunter easily from ‘screen’ to ‘stage’. Joe Wright has been criticized for this highly stylized adaptation and his heavy use of stage convention, but it suited the dramatic story, I thought. My favourite scene was when the crops in a field are the audience and they are watching Anna’s children with her husband, after her death. The world is, after all, a silent witness to all that we do. The film brought alive Shakespeare’s famed – ‘All the world’s a stage and all men and women merely players’. It has also made me want to read the book!

Joe Wright! He is Anushka Shankar’s husband. He has also made Pride and Prejudice, also with Kiera Knightley and also another favourite – the book as well as all cinematic versions of it. His other film is the Atonement, also with Miss Knightley. I am going to watch out for this guy.

Now Dorian Gray – directed by Oliver Parker, screenplay adapted by Toby Finlay form Oscar Wilde’s horror-fantasy novel A Picture of Dorian Gray. Selling ones soul to the devil in return for material benefits is the theme – in Dorian’s case, a life of unremitting pleasure. A beautiful oil painting of Dorian’s, done by his friend Basil takes the brunt and is desecrated a little bit, with every depravity of Dorian’s. Ben Barnes’ rendition of the Adonis-like Dorian, who never ages, is nuanced. His physical appearance has to remain exactly the same throughout the film; his lips and eyes do all the work of contrasting the former innocent with the subsequent degenerate.

I also perceived a suggestion of homosexuality. The painter clearly has more than an artistic interest in the graceful Dorian. However, the idea is only suggested, not explored. It is interesting, because Oscar Wilde himself walked the wild side and was convicted for paedophilia.

His literary talent, though, is undeniable and his epigrammatic wit is in complete evidence in this classical film of the nineteenth century.

A treat for lovers of literature!


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The Wolf of Wall Street


Rivetting, it was…The Wolf of Wall Street. The opening scene where they use dwarfs as darts, shocks. But the scenes depicting Jordan’s debauchery – whether money, drugs or sex – they were overlong –the audience may have retained stronger impressions of shorter scenes. Apparently, Thelma Schoonmaker, the editor has been with Scorcese for 50 years. Clearly, their creative vision is still in consonance, but seriously…2 hours and 15 minutes was fine for this, with better effect perhaps.

I however loved Leonardo’s ‘motivational’ scenes in his Stratton Oakmont office. He unashamedly excites greed in people and his whole gang of 100 or 200 employees gets as obsessed as him, scruples be damned! And they get down to the murky business of making money anyhow – calling, abusing, bulldozing people into buying. The F word flies thick and fast ( do Wall Street people really talk like that all the time?).

Barring the length of the film, it is a signature Scorcese delight. Those who loved Aviator, will love this too. There’s a classical hero ( or anti-hero) and the story is all about him – no sub plots. The story holds you, as does the dialogue.

Leonardo has done a fair amount of soliloquys in the film –rendered perfectly. And the ease with which he does just about anything before a camera – you can just watch and ‘hate his guts’ like his wife in the film did. The wife played by Margot Robbie is a gorgeous Barbie doll, and there’s also the handsome Mathew McNaughey ( gone really thin, alas!)who indoctrinates the young and ambitious Jordan. And there’s the guy who played his father (don’t know who) – there’s a scene where father and son discuss women , purely as sex objects, with absolute objectivity and aplomb. You simply can’t dismiss the guy as a lecher, he’s an unapologetic sex addict. Also a scary reminder of how money-power can make your sins look not so sinful.

The grand locations do justice to this stock market con saga, vaguely reminiscent of the ‘white telephone’ films of yore ( where the white telephone was a symbol of prosperity and so on; a good example of an Indian white telephone film would be Kal, Aaj aur Kal). And the action sequence in the sea was spectacular.

The Wolf… has been called a delirious black comedy in some reviews. I am inclined, however, to agree with Scorcese when he says that ‘it doesn’t really matter’ what you classify the film as. It is a story, and he narrated it like Homer would.


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