Friday, October 19, 2007

A Spoonful of Sugar

While it is quite common to hear people argue that Mr. Amitabh Bachchan is now overexposing himself by appearing in one too many films, one cannot help but deny that there is still an element that draws you into watching him on-screen. Indeed, he will always be one of the finer Indian actors, and that is precisely why it is hard to resist a film that pairs him with one of the country's finest actresses, Tabu.

Touted as "A Sugar Free Romance", Cheeni Kum is precisely that. A film that, without the conventional hero/heroine, college campus setting and barrage of background dancers, tells the simple tale of how two individuals share a couple of chance meetings and proceed to fall in love. Only there is no real declaration of their love - no shouting from rooftops or pouring buckets of tears while mouthing the standard 'Main tumse pyaar karti hoon' shannanigans - but a simple mutual admiration that develops over time.

The catch is that these protagonists share an 30-year age gap (Bachchan is said to be 64 and Tabu, 34). Bachchan works as a scrooge-like head chef at "Spice 6", the top Indian restaurant in London, while Tabu frequents his joint and teaches him a thing or two about real zafrani pulao. All the while, they are surrounded by a wise-beyond-her-years cancer-striken child (Swini Khera), a bumbling kitchen staff, Bachchan's Sex and the City-obsessed mother (Zohra Sehgal) and Tabu's drama queen of a father (Paresh Rawal).

What works for the film is the fact that each individual enacts his or her role with utmost ease. Yes, we could have gone a lifetime without having to witness Bachchan shop around a drug store for contraceptives, but the truth is that he is good in any role he takes on. This is also an uncharacteristically understated performance from the senior, complete without the echoing baritone voice and piercing looks we are so used to.

Tabu interprets her role with the perfect element of sarcasm and wit. It's a shame we don't see more of her, and it really is a loss to the industry that they do not give her the credit she deserves. After The Namesake, she continues to show why she is one of the best in the business.

Fans of Paresh Rawal who enjoy him at his over-the-top, Hera Pheri best will be disappointed that this is not such a role. He does have moments of humor, but his purpose is more to provide conflict in the otherwise casual love story.

Newcomer Swini Khera is very impressive as the smart-talking child. It's nice to see Indian filmmakers finding less annoying children of late (other welcome additions include Ali Haji from Fanaa/Ta Ra Rum Pum/Partner and Angelina Idnani, also from Ta Ra Rum Pum). Zohra Sehgal is just right for her role.

The music dominates the background and is not really something you pay much notice to, even if it does sound reasonably ear-pleasing.

Of course, there is a downside. At times the film fails to hold your interest. You find yourself flipping through a magazine or getting up to grab something from the kitchen - in other words, it's no film that you feel the need to give your 100% attention to.

Also, there is an overall feeling that something is missing from the film. It's one of those ventures where you don't really feel like you're watching a film. It's almost like watching an hour of Eastenders ...

Nonetheless, it's something different - not at all to be compared with Nishabd, another recent film that paired him with a significantly-younger actress, as the two films are poles apart in terms of theme and content.

Verdict? What harm can a little sugar do?

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

A Family Affair

From the moment the promos of Gandhi My Father hit the screen, one got the impression this would be a very special cinematic experience. Right from the montage to the tag line ("To the nation, he was a father...To his son, he was a father he never had"), everything about the film shrieks of the art genre, something made for the film festivals. Not to mention, the film marks the return of Anil Kapoor the producer, after the disastrous Badhaai Ho Badhaai in 2002. Can't remember Badhaai Ho Badhaai? No worries, there's a good reason for that.

Moving along, the film brings the focus back on Mahatma Gandhi after last year's blockbuster Lage Raho Munnabhai made gandhigiri the latest fashion. Any comparison between the two would, however, be entirely inappropriate - one is a serious biopic and the other a moral comedy.

Gandhi: My Father essentially traces the tumultuous relationship between Gandhi and his son, Harilal. It literally runs like a biography with the occasional flash from past to present. At times you ponder the overall point of the film, only to realize that it has no conflict or resolution as such - it is simply an untold chapter of Gandhi's life.

What works for the film is the fact that it is a compelling story. While it is certainly not for those of you looking for a bit of song and dance, it is definitely recommended for art cinema enthusiasts. Yes, the film moves at a sluggish pace and is often hard to get through, but a part of you remains curious enough to explore this part of Gandhi's life, a facet seldom encountered both on celluloid and in the history books.

In addition, the film is laden with excellent performances from the lead cast. Akshaye Khanna may forever be known as the untapped talent of Indian cinema, but here he gets the license to show everyone what he's made of. At times you may think he is resorting to histrionics, but not if you take into consideration the intensity of Harilal and the torment he undergoes throughout his life. It's almost sad that Akshaye is never really given his due, as he has a fair amount of reputable performances in his repertoire.

It's a bit of a breakout performance for Darshan Jariwala as well, whose prior acting credits include bit roles in films like Honeymoon Travels Pvt. Ltd. and Aap Ka Suroor. At this point there have been so many representations of Gandhi on screen that it is hard to decipher a stand-out performance from an ordinary one, but Mr. Jariwala makes his presence felt.

Shefali Shah is outstanding as Kasturba Gandhi. Again, we have an underrated performer who makes the most of the opportunity bestowed upon her.

Bhumika Chawla is an improvement from her previous ventures, although one really wonders what sort of future she has in the industry. Good on her for doing some nice work in a critically-acclaimed film such as this, but after a reasonably successful debut in Tere Naam, one feels like she never really took off.

But the film is certainly not without its flaws. Even after the film reaches its climax, there is a sense of it being incomplete. So much effort went into fact-checking the history, bringing into light another side of Gandhi, etc. only wishes the filmmakers had gone that extra mile and left a lasting impression on the viewer.

Instead, the viewer comes out of the film thinking it was "a nice film", when it is clear the intent was to be more of an epic. Also, the aforementioned pace is an issue - perhaps some small scenes could have been cut or better transitions utilized, because there are several moments when the film is unable to hold its grip on your attention.

Having said that, there are also scenes that should have been inserted into the film. Quite a few details remain unexplained, and some of these are the details that escalate into serious conflicts. Why does Gandhi encourage Indian youths to study abroad and then discourage his own son from doing so? This is just one of a number of questions that should have been answered.

Verdict? Watch if you can appreciate good acting and offbeat cinema.