Love, Sex Aur Dhokha

Through The Rear Window 
(Image courtesy:

Let’s not make wrong assumptions. Dibakar Banerjee’s Love, Sex Aur Dhokha (2010) is not an experimental film, although it is considerably avant-garde in comparison to the existing norms of Bollywood, with its premise, non-professional casting, sound design and somewhat non-conformist grammar. The promos may have given one the idea that it is a film that works in ultra-Brechtian mode. Far from that, the film doesn’t ever breach the fourth wall, thanks to its choice of making the film appear entirely subjective (It actually isn’t as is revealed by certain shots). Another misconception the promotional ads might have given birth to is that Banerjee’s film is highly agenda-driven. This was my biggest fear too, that Banerjee might be presenting an extended, dressed-up message pertaining to mass media and reality TV.  Thankfully, not considering its minor flights into Madhur Bhandarkar-ness, the film eschews making any overt statement and lets the implication of its choices speak for itself. Banerjee uses a number of clever and not-so-clever tricks to make the film straddle the zones of populist and experimental cinema, the brilliant and the banal and art and entertainment. But, perhaps, the best part about the whole venture is that it stands witness to the fact that it isn’t just because of the star or studio system that our cinema is in such a poor shape. And that good cinema can well be produced under shoestring budgets.

Love, Sex Aur Dhokha presents three stories, running for about 40 minutes each, each of which is introduced by an apt B-movie title, suggesting the highly fictional and staged nature of the segments to follow. Indeed, each of the three stories amounts to some form of performance or the other. The first segment gives us a student filmmaker, Rahul (Anshuman Jha), who idolizes Aditya Chopra and is trying to complete his diploma film that takes off from his mentor’s much loved Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (1995). The second part tells the story of a retail store manager, ironically named Adarsh (Raj Kumar Yadav), who is terribly pressed for money and plans to break through, not without much hesitation, by rigging up a sex scandal. And the third section gives us a television reporter, Prabhat (Amit Sial), and his aide, whom he saves from suicide, trying to blow the cover of a vulgar pop-star by setting up a sting operation. Banerjee uses the oldest trick of the new millennium to tie the three disparate stories together, using overlapping narratives and intersecting references and conversations, whose artificiality shows up at a few places, but not so much as to make the choice seem completely inorganic. In all three segments, there is at least one diegetic camera recording all the events – of Rahul’s professional camera, the CCTC cameras and Prabhat’s spy-cam – whose footage Banerjee splices and slices to form a seamless narrative.

The first segment, at first glance, seems cut off thematically from the other two. However, gradually, it reveals itself as a gateway to the other two segments, which starkly diverge from the idea the first one presents. Rahul, like the bumbling duo of Ishqiya (2010), does not understand the difference between life and art. He believes that life can proceed the same way as one of his mentor’s movies. He tries to port Bollywood culture on to his life – scribbling his beloved’s name on trees, eloping with friends’ help a la Saathiya (2002) and making late night phone calls to surprise his sweetheart. One even wonders if his real name is Rahul or if it is another one of his lame attempts at merging life with pop art. In other words, he does not realize that his life is the exact negation of the film he is making. A cut from the smiling face of Shruti within the film gives way to the image of her crying in reality. A scene in Rahul’s film is interrupted by a similar incident happening in real life. Shruti’s father turns out to be far from the generous father in his film. Rahul films his life 24×7, in order to send it to his idol some day, with a belief that it is as fairytale-like as the films he likes (there is even a kiss scene in this section that is severed from the frame in a manner characteristic of Bollywood). Rahul, eventually, pays the price for not understanding the vast chasm that exists between reality and its popular representation, an instance of which he is creating as his diploma project (I don’t understand why Banerjee feels the need to exaggerate the film within the film so much to emphasize this dichotomy. Comic relief, maybe).

[LSD Trailer]

Having established the disjunction between truth and its representation, Banerjee’s film attempts to explore the ethics of representation in the second segment of the film. Banerjee bases this part of the film fittingly in a supermarket – the temple of commodification and commerce. Characters, especially the two women in this segment, are almost always filmed standing amidst aisles filled with FMCG products, wearing clothing that is as colourful as the products themselves. One person in the mall tells us how commercially profitable the CCTV is, citing the hefty amount of money that the footage of a shootout brought. Welcome to the world of consumer capitalism, where violence and sex are commodities to be proliferated, packaged, advertised and sold. The moral conflict that Adarsh is presented with, when he has the option of switching off the CCTV system, is the quintessential moral question underlying capitalism – just how far will you go? In fact, the target is capitalism in all three segments of the film. Only that it is indicted through its powerful agents – mass media and Bollywood. Adarsh himself is a more polished and less addicted version of Rahul in the way he is unable to comprehend the difference between reality and its representation (and, hence perhaps, the gravity and possible consequences of his moral choice). In a cheeky homage to Jean-Luc Godard’s Band of Outsiders (1964), Adarsh gloriously “performs”, in true Bollywood fashion, a fake death stunt while he frets when an actual shootout follows. The sex scene itself is filmed head on and plays out between the storeroom shelf and a curtain suggestive of a theatrical performance.

Following this segment on the ethics of representation, Banerjee takes up the tautological (and Godardian) question of representation of ethics. This third section of the film, which deals with a sting operation performed by a private news network, is, on paper, the richest segment of the film for it’s the most morally ambiguous of the three. Morally ambiguous because, unlike the other two segments, we just aren’t able to embrace any particular side or character here. The pop-star’s activities may be highly questionable and even downright immoral, but so are the methods of the news network. Each character in this segment is prostituting himself/herself in one way or the other (Of course, here too, the punching bag is capitalism). Only that the news network, the self-proclaimed keeper of truth and justice, seems licensed to do it. More than acting as a medium of announcement, this news network, as in reality, likes to work as a moral police, telling its people what is ethically right, what is wrong, when to be enraged at someone and when to cheer for some lame event. There is apparently no difference between what the news network editor does and what Adarsh does. However, there is a ray of hope that is presented in this segment in the form of (again, the aptly named) Prabhat, the least unethical person in the film and the alter ego of the director himself perhaps, who refuses to hand over any of the footage that he has shot, sacrificing fame and money for integrity.

Of course, Banerjee’s film isn’t as consistent and ambitious in presenting us with such moral ambiguity. The characters in the first two segments are mostly black and white and we are told beforehand whom to root for and whom to curse. But as such, the film has a set of ethics (evident from its editing pattern), close to that of Prabhat’s, which it staunchly adheres to, even to the point of flaunting it. The possibly sensational sex scene is dimly lit and choreographed at a considerable distance from the camera that it is completely de-eroticized. So is the case with the murder in the first segment. In all three segments, reality is manipulated to a large extent for the sake of representation – Rahul’s film, the MMS clip and the sting operation footage – with a profit motive. Although the titular love, sex and betrayal form the prime motifs in the first, second and third segments respectively, it is clear that all three elements run though all the three sections of the film in a manner that betrays much cynicism about cinema. This cynicism towards such an important medium by a filmmaker is certainly off-putting until Banerjee presents the warm epilogue to the film, where a young girl wields the camera and charmingly interviews the various characters of the film. Yes, Banerjee does seem to recognize the power of cinema in preserving life’s most precious and fleeting moments, to convert them into art and preserve them for eternity.



So, for the second time, the Pharisees
summoned the man who had been blind and said:
“Speak the truth before God.
We know this fellow is a sinner.”
“Whether or not he is a sinner, I do not know,”
The man replied.
“All I know is this:
Once I was blind and now I can see.”

Right after I posted my epic fail review of Ishqiya, bits and pieces of the film started to sink in. Many of the film’s odd choices seemed to gain a significance of their own and, before I knew it, like those clichéd second act endings, they all fell in place, presenting a whole new perspective to the film. Out of the dozen reviews I’ve read of the film, only my friend Satish Naidu’s review seemed to hit the right notes. I strongly recommend reading his review if you’ve seen the film. And yes, spoilers here too (Well, there isn’t really much in the movie that you can’t guess beforehand).

There is a post script, in Ishqiya, to the kidnap set piece where Krishna, amidst a serious argument between Babban and Khalujaan, drives the car away leaving them gaping. She might well be driving away the film there, for Ishqiya, more than anything, is about the resistance to a male view of a world by a female perspective. Ishqiya is a Western alright, with its war-torn landscape leaving no other philosophy to exist other than “might is right”. But that really doesn’t give anyone a license to call it a man’s world. The story unfolds, primarily, in the point of view of the two men, but, rather than being protagonists with clear cut objectives, they are frames of reference – a telescope – using which we view and, unfortunately, try to ‘solve’ Krishna, that obscure object of desire. Yes, they are characters of considerable depth, but they are also, ultimately, peripheral. A quick note, to begin with, about the casting of the film which seems to me like a stroke of brilliance. We have here Naseeruddin Shah and Arshad Warsi, men who have rarely been the flawless heroes, who have made a career out of bumbling and imperfect protagonists. They automatically bring into the movie with them flawed male visions that belong to two different generations. Krishna is played by Vidya Balan, who has had a popular image that could well pass off as an icon of the chaste Indian female. This incongruity between what appears and what is, which defines the whole of Ishqiya, is only furthered by this distance between Balan’s image and Krishna.

Babban and Khalujaan are closer to Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud) than any other film character I can think of. These men are (con-) artists too, like Doinel, as exemplified in their introduction scene, where Babban tricks Mushtaq with his story and flees with the money. Like Truffaut’s character, who spent a lifetime wondering if women were magic, these men can understand the opposite sex only in terms of art or, in this case, popular cinema (where Krishna is aptly photographed like being frozen in a film frame). It is only through popular film songs that these characters are able to even express their emotions. Khalujaan may make numerous mistakes in his real life, but never does he get the composer of a song wrong. Babban believes dressing up as a movie star will help him woo the girl. As noted earlier, these are men of flesh and blood. They are deeply flawed and they realize their limitations. Babban drags back Khalujaan from his macho, decidedly Western romanticism of taking Mushtaq head-on, as if reminding him that this genre movie is no place for them. In Leone’s Once Upon A Time in the West (1968), Frank (Henry Fonda), upon being asked if he is a businessman, says: “Just a man”. Like Frank, these two crooks understand every shade of men and their behavioral patterns, no matter what age group they belong to. However, for these men, like Frank, women just can’t fall in any category other than in the binary setup of the mother and the whore (Khalujaan tells Krishna that he can’t tell whether she is an angel or a courtesan) that popular cinema has given them.

But Chaubey doesn’t give a comic tinge to his characters as much Truffaut does. Yes, they do deliver those funny lines, but they are serious men. They have their own issues. Babban, also true to Bollywood morality, does not want Khalujaan to sully his mother’s name. Khalujaan, on the other hand, takes his past seriously too, through his possibly deceased (possibly non-extant) sweetheart. He really does believe that he can settle down in life. But these are not their mistakes. They are, after all, real men with real emotions and problems. These are not caricatures that we can disregard easily. In any other film, they could have been the backbone of fine drama. Their real mistake, however, is in believing that they are the only ones with problems, that they are the film. The sin of these flawed men is in believing that the woman they fall for would be unflawed. Krishna driving away the car should have given them a clue. But, products of a patriarchal society and cinema that they are, they never realize that. In fact, the whole film is built upon such male perspectives that see nothing more than what they want to see. Krishna’s husband chooses a male-dominated caste war over his wife’s love. Mushtaq prefers to keep his wife as a mere voice heard over a telephone like a horoscope (announced by a Bollywood ring tone, of course). For KK, the fidelity of the male is nothing more than a small joke. Even we, the children fed on the stereotypes of Bollywood, attempt only to classify Krishna into rigid adjectives – femme fatale, all-powerful, resilient, gutsy, seductive – whereas she may be as vulnerable as the men around her.

The key is the scene where Krishna meets her husband once again. She breaks down, for the first time in the movie, revealing her vulnerability. She stands there, with her motives exposed, being emotionally hit. All this while she had been toying along with the two conmen, for she was far assured of her modus operandi. She offers tea for the man who gives her a better kidnap plan, only to deliberately fire the other one up. Krishna, in the scene in which she sleeps with Babban, clearly reveals that she is only exploiting this lucky situation that has come her way for her own good and with the assurance that and that the plan is on track. Not now. The petty goons are all down now. It’s now man on man, so to speak. It’s the only showdown this revisionist Western will have (My genre-addicted mind would have liked a couple more extreme close-ups). Film critic Baradwaj Rangan, perceptive as always, notes that Krishna is essentially an updated version of Jill (Claudia Cardinale) in Once Upon a Time in the West. That, I guess, is the only kind of classification that Krishna can be subjected to. The strongest point of the movie is that it does not try to define her or push her into a single zone of existence in which she may be only be moral, immoral or amoral. She, like many of us, could well be straddling all three. What we may be having here, far from being a character study, is personal cinema in which the writer and director are sharing our own inability to understand Krishna, and by the fact that she is the only woman in the film (not considering the old woman, who might well be an aged Krishna), women in general.

We, the audience, on the other hand, are frustrated like Khalujaan because of this inability to break her down into stereotypes. When she sucks the blood out of Babban’s thumb, one is tempted to jump the gun and label her a vamp. But she might just be using another lucky opportunity there, to strengthen her chances of pulling off the kidnap. Or may be not. Krishna defies identification, which we have all been accustomed to, through standard templates reserved for women in Bollywood which, in turn, are derived from popular mythological figures. She might be sharing herself with many men, taking turns, but she is far from the ultra-faithful Draupadi that her name means. She might appear to be pining for her beloved, a la Meera, as she sings, but that pining is for something else altogether. She is like Savitri too, but she prefers dragging back her husband to death (Death and Krishna being the two people he tricked) rather than the usual way. In the final scene, she merely attempts to restore back a reality that wasn’t. When she faces her husband again, she might well have paraphrased  that legendary Bresson line: “I’d rather prefer you leaving me for the love of another woman than for what you call your intellectual life“. And when Babban watches her undress, there is not only the distance of voyeuristic cinema between them, but also this literal wound of Krishna’s past, which only breaks out during the final confrontation, that adds one more layer of enigma for Babban, and consequently us.

It is the opening and closing scenes, or even shots, that really tie the movie together. The film opens with a male perspective, fading out of black, with Krishna on the bed in a reclining, arguably sexist pose. She appears nothing short of a magical being, which is an opinion only the male could have here (Let’s stick to straight orientations for now). And it is a pose that typifies the attractive woman in Bollywood cinema. From this point on, the film’s male perspective, our own “male” perspective and the Bollywood perspective get tied together. And the film closes, literally, with another male point-of-view. Here, Mushtaq watches the three walk away through the lens of his sniper gun. Khalujaan and Babban walk happily, perhaps with the idea that they’ve understood Krishna and one of them will “get the girl”. What they don’t understand is that the real trouble begins after this (This real-drama-begins-after-the-end-credits-roll facet of Ishqiya is one of the reasons why I was reminded of that Almodóvar film whose title I borrowed for the review). Their belief that they will return to a more conventional cinema zone, in which women are easily deconstructed, may well be shattered the next minute by Krishna. As the film presents a POV shot of Mushtaq watching them through the lens, the black circle closes in on the three, thereby ending the film simultaneously through our perspective, Mushtaq’s and in a manner unique to classical feel-good cinema. Chaubey’s film is cynical in a way. It breaks into a new world from within a undoubtedly male world of Bollywood and, at the end, restores that new world back to its obscured state. It unveils the groundbreaking Krishna through a male vision and, then, locks her back using the same, as if suggesting that popular cinema, itself included, will never understand “the woman“. Well, that acknowledgment is a start.


Once Upon A Time In The North 
(Image courtesy: NDTV)

Thanks to debutant filmmaker Abhishek Chaubey (who shares the writing credits of Kaminey (2009)), I’ve been able to watch a film that is absolutely unprovocative, after a long time. As the end credits rolled, I walked out of the cinema hall trying to recollect what felt like a distant memory, like the story of a film that a friend had recited when you were half asleep. Chaubey’s Ishqiya (2010) is a film that exists in some kind of a cinematic void, with only barebones of a relationship with its predecessors. Chances are that you’ll be pleasantly surprised if you thought the film would stink and disappointed if you expected too much from it. I fear that even if I toss a coin to find my stance regarding the film, it would land on its edge. What can you really say about a film that’s got a set of aesthetics tangible enough to arouse interest and uneven enough to restore your smugness, characters quirky enough to hold your attention and set pieces inefficient enough to allow you to not give a damn about them and a knowledge of cinema that’s impressive enough to tease us with the film’s choices and unambitious enough to not go all the way? Ishqiya is a film that seems to have landed, with considerable luck, smack dab in the eye of a cyclone whereby the film neither attracts nor repels, but just sits, like Bill Murray, in a vacuum. OK, this is getting too abstract.

Khalujaan (Naseeruddin Shah) and his nephew, Babban (Arshad Warsi), are two small time crooks who hit the road after getting their hands on a hefty sum of money. With nowhere to run for cover, they, somehow, land up in a village near the city of Gorakhpur where they find refuge at the residence of an old acquaintance, hoping to cross the national border into Nepal. After putting up with some dodging by their hostess, Krishna (Vidya Balan), they come to know that the man they have come here seeking has been long dead. By a tragic turn of events and the inevitable need to proceed to the second act, the money they’ve been carrying around gets pinched just as the duo get tracked down by the true owner of the money. With one last chance given, the pair, working on a plan charted out by Krishna, decide to kidnap a big shot in the city and make enough money to pay back the stolen sum and to settle down for life. But then, both of them eat the forbidden fruit as they fall for Eve – Krishna – who, in turn, does not give a clear indication to either one of them.  To get a clearer sense of the film’s script, take Mani Ratnam’s Thiruda Thiruda (1993, co-written by Ram Gopal Varma, whose film Rann, incidentally, opens this week and ) and strip down all its grand set pieces, action genre elements and ensemble cast. Bland? Yes.

The central conceit of Ishqiya seems to be that of a Western. The literally explosive opening sets the tone for the tale that’s going to unfold in this outwardly serene yet war-torn land. Speaking of war-torn lands, there are far too few shots of the landscape of the village which is really sad, for what’s a Western without the Wild West?! Apart from this basic glitch, you have broad syntax of the Western more or less intact. There are the typical outsiders – two of them, in this case – who enter a completely alien townscape and find themselves trapped in the local gang wars. These are perfect “road people” that we are talking about. Then there’s Vishal Bhardwaj’s Ennio Morricone-esque score that does a whole lot of good to the film. There’s even an ending where the triumphant “lone rangers” ride off into the sunset. But the fatal blow to this attempt at a wonderful transposition of a foreign genre into an indigenous landscape is dealt by the largely inept development of the protagonists. Let’s make no mistake about this. The Western genre has always been, primarily, about morality, about the need to hold a moral ground in an amoral and hostile environment and about the validity of one’s own moral standing (The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (1966) – it’s all taken apart, right in the title!), thanks to which they retain a timeless, philosophical quality. Ishqiya, unfortunately, turns a blind eye to this requirement.

The lead characters here, on the other hand, are presented with no formidable moral choices at all. If I remember correct, there are exactly two points in the film where Khalujaan has to make a moral decision (the same goes for Babban, who isn’t much different, although we are led to believe otherwise, early in the film). The first is when he is asked to take part in a kidnapping and the second, when he is asked by Babban to kill Krishna. In both cases, Chaubey cuts away too quickly, sacrificing quality drama to carry forward the plot. This moral imbalance is only furthered by the presence of the most important and well rounded character in the film, Krishna, who, thank heavens, for once, does not advertise her moral universe using monologues or outbursts. She constructs her own moral fabric wherein she does not make a fuss about kidnapping a man to get what she wants. Here’s a married woman who does not mind seducing two men simultaneously as long as it helps her purpose (It’s not for nothing that her name is Krishna). She doesn’t flinch one bit to knock off her beloved husband just because he had ditched her earlier. So we have the all-powerful Krishna, who can go any length to get what she wants, on one side of the see-saw and the pair of charlatans, who are ready to even lick boots for survival, on the other. Right there, the moral tension is lost and film turns away from being character-driven, which is how it starts out as, to, sadly, being plot-driven.

[Ishqiya Trailer]

There’s really no problem with that except when you don’t provide any emotional anchor to root for a character (I’m going old school just because the mode of discourse Ishqiya adopts is generic). What happens here, as a result, is that we are only indifferent to the very many actions and gestures unfolding on screen. Consider the sequence where Krishna holds the duo hostages for one last time. This moment is followed by the duo tricking Krishna and getting the pistol back from her. Genre grammar tells us that dramatic tension should be cranked up when at least one of the parties is in power. No. We just don’t give a damn and wait for the next plot point. We don’t feel anything when Babban slaps Krishnaa following this. Why? May be because we never really sided with any of these characters. Only Naseeruddin Shah, with his characteristic quirks and improvisation, adds some flavor to Khalujaan. But even his character is presented with no real challenge in the script and, instead, is made to move along with the plot. Neither are our sentiments with the pivotal Krishna, who is but another instance of the militant brand of feminists “New Bollywood” cinema has been endorsing for some time now. In an attempt to break away from the stereotype of the divine, chaste female who sacrifices herself for her man, these films have resorted to the opposite end of the spectrum where the woman is the ultimate destroyer, which, I think, is equally questionable.

There is something very strange and intriguing, not necessarily bad, about all these characters in Ishqiya. Take the two crooks, Khalujaan and Babban, who, although played by stars, aren’t really heroes or even brave men. All they desire is to survive and, if possible, get the girl (Heck, they start their journey from the grave they have dug for themselves!). They do not wish to outwit the owner of the money they’ve stolen from. They don’t attempt to exploit the gang war for their benefit or for anyone’s (These are not Yojimbos!). They don’t carry out the kidnapping successfully. Why, they even require the help of a bumbling police force and an old woman to pull off the final stunt. These are truly flawed characters. All this takes these characters away from genre cinema, which Ishqiya seems to gleefully build upon, towards realism. In fact, call it the irony of Bollywood cinema, these characters seem so multi-dimensional when they are supposed to play cardboards. Even Krishna’s husband, who is allotted not more than ten screen minutes, feels true to life (and is, sadly, played ‘realistically’!). It is as if these real-life characters have been nudged into a genre movie after being given a brief and asked to improvise their way out of it (opposite of what Tarantino generally does). This does sound really interesting, but it never really amounts to anything. The actual triumph, in fact, comes in the form of a minor character – the owner of the stolen money – who is, probably, the only character who knows where he is and, thankfully, gets to close the film.

The first half hour is perhaps when the film is at its finest, with the relationship between characters being established using well choreographed compositions, and where the feminist stance of the film is at its most commendable. Early on, when both the audience and the two men are struggling to understand what kind of a person Krishna is, she is, fittingly, photographed almost exclusively behind bars, through doorways and within closed structures, as if she’s dodging analysis. We are even led to believe that she is like Meera, but it turns out that she’s far from a woman who pines for her man who’s gone away (This Meera doesn’t mind two more men meanwhile!). And at the end of the film, she’s seen out in the vast open walking peacefully with these two men, with nothing to hide. However, this attention to composition isn’t always consistent and the film, for most of its runtime, loses track of its own aesthetics. This kind of tapering off of intensity is visible within separate set pieces of the film too. What start out as a gritty genre pieces end up nowhere. The kidnap set piece, to cite one example, begins with standard thriller procedures but, eventually, moves towards deadpan comedy wherein it’s the common public that carries out the kidnap. This kind of attempt to work from within and, then, out of genre templates may have been intentional on part of Chaubey, but it doesn’t exactly give a whack. It doesn’t really hurt the film either. The film, somehow, seems to neutralize itself. Go stare at it if you want.

Rating: Whatever


Ingloriouf Baftardf
(Image courtesy:

The protagonist of Vishal Bhardwaj’s Kaminey (2009) tells during the beginning of the movie: “We are never screwed by the paths that we take, but by those which we don’t”. And at the end of the film, this is exactly what must be told of Kaminey too. The idea behind Kaminey is inarguably great – so great that each one of us who hears it would be tempted to elaborate on it, make our own version of it and provide a whole new dimension to it. The sad thing is that that is precisely what has happened. With much hype behind it, Kaminey has proved to be yet another idea wasted, but is sure to have its own takers claiming everything, from Shahid’s six pack abs to its pretty neat soundtrack, as a reason to celebrate it as a masterpiece. Cinema is often called a “collaborative art” and Kaminey serves to prove that the real challenge is not to produce art, but to derive it out of collaboration. What would make for a more interesting movie than Kaminey would be a film about its making, for it is surely going to be funny seeing too many people trying to incorporate their own vision into the film, leaving the director helpless.

(Possible spoilers)

Here is the plot for those who would like to know what the film is about. I’m pruning down a lot of details which Bhardwaj seems to have retained for the sake of filling the runtime of the film. Guddu and Charlie (both played by Shahid Kapur) are twins. Guddu is working in an NGO, spreading awareness about HIV/AIDS and is in love with Sweety (Priyanka Chopra). Sweety is pregnant with Guddu’s child and is the sister of Bhope (Amol Gupte), a fundamentalist politician who is now hell bent on getting rid of Guddu to stabilize his position in the party. Charlie, on the other hand, is a gambler and a small time crook. He dreams of having his own horse-race booking company and hopes to grab hold of lady luck by whatever way he can. His villain is Tashi (Tenzing Nima), a high-profile gangster with international connections whose “goods” fall into the hands of Charlie. There are also some two dozen characters who enter the screen now and then, laugh manically, get shot and get forgotten. And yes, their paths cross, things (are made to) happen and they live happily ever after.

Kaminey is written by four people and it shows. Remember the game we used to play where each one of us took turns to add one line to take the story forward? Now remove all the fun from that and voila, you have the script of Kaminey. This proverbial broth absorbs a specific character from each one of its cooks, but doesn’t have one of its own. Nor does it present memorable characters in it. May be Bhardwaj was trying to create a Pulp Fiction (1994) of sorts, but the result is far from it. His characters are quirky for the sake being quirky. May be their names do allude to some movie classics, but you almost hear them crying out: “Hey there, I’m a offbeat and kinky character. Please love me and imitate me”. Neither are they employed as abstractions to make large scale statements about the world as in “arthouse cinema”, nor are they distorted and caricatured to pay homage and refer to film history as in Pulp Fiction and nor are they used to summarize the spirit of the age. They are not even real people living in all three dimensions. Characters come and characters go. Peripheral characters have their own limelight and die without a trace.

Let me try to clarify what I mean by summarizing what “each script” of Kaminey wants to be and what it turns out to be. The first of these was the potential USP of the film. Kaminey is full of Bolly references. Two brothers, who love each other, growing up on either side of the law, a larger than life baddie who vacations in exotic locales while giving orders to pull the trigger elsewhere and even a climax where almost all the characters in the film start firing at each other, while the bad bro turns martyr to save his sibling – we’ve seen them all before. What Kaminey seems to be trying is to pay tribute to and give a reboot to this Masala Noir genre while attempting to retain the sensibilities of today’s generation. But such a film ought not to take itself seriously. Instead it has to go for the laughs, all the way. This is where the second thread of Kaminey intervenes. One might argue that Bhardwaj was trying to give a slick production like Raghavan’s superb Johnny Gaddaar (2007), but characters in such films, I believe, should never be psychoanalyzed. Look at each character in Gaddaar. What do they all want? Simple. Money. Each of them is a mere placeholder, a mere entity that is driven along by the plot, its uncertainties and well, its fate. Kaminey, on the other hand, earnestly elaborates on the characters’ motivations and dreams, trying to make us empathize with them. It even presents extended Freudian sequences for this “purpose”.

[Kaminey Trailer]

Kaminey is then a character-driven film, you say? Let’s take the case of Guddu and Sweety – the two characters that the writers may claims as having depth. Apart from their one night-stand, we are given about three short scenes that are supposed to illustrate their relationship. The first of this is a perfunctory “chemistry scene”. The second one, which turns up just after the fiasco at their marriage ceremony, seems like just another ploy to siphon sympathy. And wait till you hear what the laughable basis of their romance is, in the third scene which takes place in a train. And finally, the most annoying of all the contributions is what makes the already out of control film seem overreaching and pretentious. With a tacked up message that blows up to full scale during the final shootout and cooked up observations that would make Thomas Friedman scratch his head, Kaminey shows signs of a naughty liberal chuckling his way through. Kaminey is not four films packed into one, but one film torn apart into four. Even if it had stuck to one of those paths, Bhardwaj would have had a pretty decent bullet point in his resumé.

Everything seems to come in pairs in Kaminey. There are pairs of brothers everywhere in the film. I would have even loved if the rapper-gangsta from Bombay to Bangkok (2007) showed up in Kaminey to claim that Tashi was his half-brother! But seriously, Kaminey never capitalizes upon this opportunity anywhere in the film. Let me just tell you about a couple of points in the film where I thought it could have taken the “other path” and salvaged itself to an extent. The first is at the intermission point, where Guddu and Charlie are confronted by wrong sets of goons. There was scope both for some awesome comedy and awesome suspense there. Not by the regular identity-confusion gag (and if the film’s vision was strong, that too), but by some subversion of conventions and morals. Instead, the film opts for some slapdash rush towards the climax, which is the second time I felt that the film could somewhat reset itself towards the destination it wanted. When more than a dozen characters are present on your canvas for a single scene, it’s very easy to mash it all up and that is exactly what happens. But this could have proved to be gold if only Bhardwaj had decided to stick to the true purpose of the film.

I may be just playing the troll over here, but surely, none of the scenes hold together. Each version of the film’s script seems to pull down the other, taking the film into a zone of utter indecisiveness. Kaminey, unfortunately, does not even have the surface gloss of Dev D (2009). Using ill-focused, largely handheld shots, Kaminey betrays both its history and quality. One can’t even comment on the technical aspects of the film, for the script leaves them without a direction. So it remains a mystery whether the excessive number of close-ups did good to the film or whether Bhardwaj’s device of revealing the past towards the end was apt, for the film does not seem to know what is good for it at all. All that is amusing in the film is the way Shahid Kapur makes lisping sound funny (lisping is new, stammering is out of date, you know). As for Vishal Bhardwaj, it is only good that he now returns to his personal and honest way of storytelling, for god sake, having a say on the final script. I risked Swine Flu by going to this movie and I say I deserve a medal.



Do Bhiga Zamin (1953) (aka Two Acres Of Land)
Bimal Roy

“The land is the farmer’s mother. How can I sell my mother?”


DBZPost-war world cinema has been undoubtedly influenced by the Italian realist wave – be it the hard-hitting social commentary by Rosselini and Visconti or the soft delineation of day-to-day struggle by De Sica. After all, it gave birth to India’s greatest filmmaker Satyajit Ray! India, too, was quick to join the bandwagon and as a result, produced some terrific neo-realist films. Although a bit melodramatic, Bimal Roy’s Do Bigha Zamin (1953) may well be called the Indian answer to De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief (1947).

Shambhu (Balraj Sahni, the Indian Humphrey Bogart) is a petty farmer who is happy with his two acres of land, his wife Parvati (Nirupa Roy) and his son Kanhaiya (Rattan Kumar, who would go on to become the star in Raj Kapoor’s Boot Polish (1954)). Things are smooth until his tract of land comes under threat of industrialization – A scheme spearheaded by the zamindar and loan shark of the village Thakur Hamam Singh (Murad), who tricks Shambhu into either paying up a huge amount of money or relinquishing the claim on his land. As a result, he is forced to go to the city with his son and earn the required sum of money, leaving his father and wife behind in the village. Shambhu takes a range of jobs – from a coolie to a rickshaw puller – just in order to earn those few hundred rupees. Kanhaiya, too, tries to lend a helping hand to his father. The rest of the film follows their harsh life in the city of Calcutta, their hopes, struggles and the denouement of their exertions in a very pragmatic and undecorated fashion.

The ending, a poignant and satirical visual assembly, is a bit sorrowful contrary to the popular happy ending concept prevalent during its times. A very daring move by Roy that tests the comfort levels of the audience – an idea that would be given an in-your-face execution later in Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear (1957). The score by Salil Chowdhary, who also provided the story for the film, is low-key and does not manipulate the emotions of the viewers for most part of the movie while the restrained camerawork matches the intensity of its lead.

The consummate screenplay by to-be-legendary director Hrishikesh Mukherjee, who also edited the film, handles many social themes with ease. The issue of internecine twin migration among the rural and urban not only becomes an integral part of the narration, but also serves as an eye opener for the hundreds of villagers who abandon farming in the dream of making it big in the city. Its counterpart, where agrarian lands are scathed, drained and made lifeless in the name of industrialization and development, is also subtly critiqued.

The most positive aspect of the film is the accentuation on upholding of one’s dignity and self esteem in the most perturbing situations. Though Shambhu could have executed his task easily in more ways than one, he opts for the most ethical choice of all – hard work. This universal theme of strong moral stand against a tide of corrupting influences would be seen in hundreds of movies that followed, more famously in Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (1977), which stands at the pinnacle of American Neorealism.

The indivisible nature of the family, all of whose members work towards the fulfillment of a single objective, which is a feature of the traditional Indian society yet universal in application, is a motif in the film. All of the members – Shambhu, his wife, his father and son – intend to alleviate his situation and try to contribute in every way possible. Another theme in the film that is characteristic of the then rural India is the issue of illiteracy among small time farmers that results in their economical exploitation by the money lenders and zamindars. On slight deliberation, it is easy to see that the root of Shambhu’s afflictions is his naiveté towards the legal issues of debt and interest. This issue would be lapped up later by Mehboob Khan’s Oscar nominee Mother India (1957).

Bimal Roy distributed the film abroad in the name “Calcutta – The Cruel City”. Indeed, the shattering image of Shambhu overtaking a horse cart as his customer offers more money for going faster shows how humans and beasts are considered no different in the cities. The film carries a recurring contrast between the warmth of bucolic life and the sheer frigidity of urban living throughout. Shambhu is consistently snubbed and ridiculed when he asks for a job in the city whereas he was offered a Hookah in the village without even asking.

Mahatma Gandhi said that the soul of the nation lies in its villages. What happens if the soul is ripped apart by the existentialism of its body? It is evident that Do Bhiga Zamin has been influenced by and influenced tens of masterful movies spanning different geographical, linguistic, social and temporal backgrounds, but still has a firm foot in its culture. This testifies that cinema knows no barriers and can be ecumenical but at the same time, be uniquely encoded in its culture. To paraphrase film theorist André Bazin – “it is both pre-translated and untranslatable”.

First published in Dear Cinema