Naan Kadavul

Taming the Third Taboo (pic: Photobucket)

Bala’s Naan Kadavul is a stupendous failure. Its script is darn predictable. It is nothing more than a reworking of the damsel in distress template. Most of its characters are caricatures and exaggerated for dramatic effect. The final monologue is way over the top. Its shot compositions are weak and inconsistent. It glorifies violence. Its way too melodramatic for its own good. Rudran’s mother is a cardboard and her character, overdone. And so is the character of Thandavan. It uses music way too generously to corrupt its atmosphere. Its editing is way too jagged and at times too liberal. Don’t even get me started on the logical flaws. 

Phew! Now that all that’s off my chest, let’s talk about the film.

Bala’s films have become like the Cricket World cup. They come out with much hype and after years of wait. What we have here is a director who has “grown out” of the industry. Rather than going with the flow of things, we have a director here who seems to pave his own way. Very few directors have managed to become independent of the market demand in Tamil film industry, leave alone with such a minuscule filmography. This is one of the very few directors who get a louder cheer than the lead actor of the film during the title credits. Let’s face it, which director, even with the remotest idea of what sells and what doesn’t, would have the guts to open a film in an alien land, with a Hindi title song? Or to follow it up with an extended Sanskrit track? Or to use considerable amounts of lines in Hindi and Sanskrit? Heck, who else would have a lead character who roams around in his loincloth and speaks sparing and barely legible lines? Welcome to Bala’s world.

Naan Kadavul is pretty much faulty with its techniques. Arthur Wilson’s cinematography is weak and shows glaringly in the indoor scenes. His two-shots betray the scene and show complacency. See, you build up tension with the scripted scene and why do you want to drive home the content by losing the atmosphere? Not to mention the scenes in the beggar lair. The whole camerawork is politically incorrect, as in Sethu (1999) too. You never look at the characters like that. Wilson’s camera is always curious. It tilts, it pans and it tracks. There’s no problem with that at all, but the grammar it uses isn’t right. It keeps looking down upon its characters. And also hurting the film is the slew of reaction shots that Bala uses. This technique, fortunately for Bala, proves itself to be a double edged sword in the film. You see, a reaction shot in a scene of drama is a sign of weakness. It is as if the director is showing us the gravity of the situation without letting the audience comprehend it. And Naan Kadavul is filled up with many of these. Interestingly, it is the reaction shot that makes a comedy scene work. More than the comic line or gesture, the reaction from “the victim” is what highlights it. Naan Kadavul is filled with those too. Take the scene where Hamsavali advices Rudran to go back to his family. This could have been one sick lecture, but see how Bala’s reaction shots distort the tone of the scene from melodrama to comedy. Sadly, the former type stands out too. However, the handhelds work well outdoors and, I feel, could have been used throughout the film. And so are the close-ups. It’s been a long time since we saw a director confident enough to use the close-ups. Bala closes in and his actors deliver. 

Take the editing of the film too. Bala either cuts way too early for comfort or way too late for continuity. There are some absurd filler shots that are a sore. And some shots that should have been given a second or two more. Consider the scene where Rudran is on the terrace waking up the whole neighbourhood. We are shown a shot of the members of the family sitting together downstairs. They are shattered and helpless. There is a perfect distance achieved by the camera. And what happens?  Bala cuts away. This shot could have made much more impact than the buckets of tears. Again, take the scene where the second beggar group is performing at the police station. We see a constable stationed outside, timidly trying to take a look at what is happening. This is great satire. But how many of us noticed it. This is not our problem as Bala refuses to show that for more than half a second. What happens essentially is that the cutting betrays good cinematography and vice versa. 

Thirdly and most importantly, the use of background score undermines the quality of the film big time. With all due respects to Ilayaraja (whose score would shine as a standalone piece), I would say that the excessive use of emotional cues is a shot in the arm for Naan Kadavul. You see, the moment you have a violin in your film, you throw it away to the dogs.  That is because, by the property of their sounds, violins are very evocative instruments. Bala’s scenes have enough raw power by themselves to convey the depth of the situation. He uses excessive amounts of highlighting score that tries to tell you what to feel eventually making the scenes mediocre. Consider the scenes of Rudran’s return home or the separation of the beggar kids by the thugs. There is already much happening and pop comes the background score to distract us. There is enough drama in all his scenes, aided by good performances. Why over-determine what you want to say? Bala is a director who has as much confidence as does the title of the film, but not (yet) on his audience. He should have believed that his audience would understand the emotional gravity that he felt, without resorting to such poor tricks. Bala is a director who has never shirked from showing raw emotions. So why shirk from hiding it when necessary? Luckily, Bala’s films so far have compensated for the form with their content, more or less. So I’ll just stop there with a hope that all this will be completely corrected in his forthcoming films.

There have always been two facets, taboos rather, that have plagued cinema world over – sex and violence. Their depiction on screen has been much debated over and their use much researched and their responsibilities, studied. The world is slowly opening up to the former, but the latter still remains a hot issue. Popular cinema, however, still treats them as it did decades ago. The use and the meaning it conveys have never been questioned by pop filmmakers of the world, leave alone the Indian ones. Indian cinema has always shown gratuitous amounts of violence on screen and seemed to have no problems with that. But ALL the violence it shows is based on a single moral premise – good over evil – that we all have been hypnotized with. I don’t mean the idea of good winning over its rival but the definition of good and bad itself. Films as graphic as Thevar Magan (1992) to ones as mellow as Jaane Tu… Ya Jaane Na (2008) have firmly set their foot on this premise as far as their use of graphic violence is considered. And Bala’s film here, is no different. See how he creates the platform for violence by making his villain despicable. He imparts alarming one-dimensionality to Thandavan and resorts to shocking the audience with graphic torture. In essence, like the very many Indian films, he the sets audience’s mentality to consider violence as a optimum solution to the problem. And the ensuing violence arrives readily justified and as a consolation to the restless audience. 

The term “glorifying violence” has been used by reviewers very loosely. They seem to consider any film that shows considerable amounts of it as glorifying violence. If that is so, all the popular films from the country would be glorifying violence. Does Naan Kadavul glorify violence? Of course, it does. But not in a very different way from the other films of today. But does it have an impact? Bala sets up the situation for accepting violence, but would one actually go on to be influenced? No. You see, by the virtue of the character that the script provides, the film provides us an instant alienation from Rudran. Though it makes the audience support his actions, it never would instigate them to follow suit. Naan Kadavul, like almost all pop films, presents itself in a whole new world and consequently cuts off any of its justification of its actions in the real one. And the audience never carries on its support out of the theatre (as much as it does for its morals). So even though the film (and all films that have a stunt sequence) glorifies violence, it never can offer this as a solution to social problems. As a result, the film isn’t a glorification of violence as much as it is of our strong morals.

To get a measure, consider Jaane Tu… Ya Jaane Na. This is a film that is much closer to our world. All the violence shown in the film is a single punch. Now, the film presents Jai as a character who is brought up against violence. He sticks to it for a large part of the film even though Aditi’s one-dimensional boyfriend provokes. And finally when the film reaches its match point – Wham! Jai punches him to prove his manhood and his love. The audience applauds.  And since the film mirrors, to an extent, our world and behaviour, the audience reassures itself that violence is a good solution. It would very well take with itself subconsciously the idea that violence is a token of manhood and a good way of dealing with one’s insecurities. Now, compare this with Bala’s film. It oozes with gore and the gore is washed away from our minds once the end credits roll. This is what the world the director builds can do to the film and its responsibilities. This is Bala’s world. He is not interested in normal people. He is interested in the outcast and the outlawed. All the people he deals with are “strange ones”. Look how the “normal” people are indifferent in the temple scenes as they go on with their routine lives. There is much drama happening in the beggar crowd which they seem indifferent to. There is a Jai and an Aditi walking somewhere in that world surrounding the one that Bala’s interested in. And his success is his conviction that what interests him will interest us too.

[Video: Trailer of Naan Kadavul]

In Indian cinema, there is interestingly an addition to the two member “taboo” set above – that dreaded thing called religion. Our films have always alluded to it, touched it, gone around but have never once confronted it. The films that did deal with it extensively turned out to be one-sided duds like Velu Prabhakar’s films or Ramanarayanan’s. No film has explored how deep religion is linked to each one of our words and gestures. Hell, no film has even examined what religion means to the common man. Dasavatharam (2008) teased us with the possibilities, but stopped there. This is the biggest taboo of them all. Our Gods are a part of or daily talk. We make fun of them and we enjoy humourous anecdotes framed around them. We even spoof our gods never once hurting anyone’s feelings. But when it comes to serious discussion, on film or otherwise, we have never strayed away from our comfort levels. Our ideas about God are so complex that we never want to understand them. Instead, we stay in a safe zone but raise our voices when someone doesn’t. In our cinema, no director has ever approached the subject with honesty and without self-consciousness. That brings us to the strongest point and the raison d’etre of Naan Kadavul. 

Naan Kadavul is essentially a mystic rehash of Bala’s own Nandha (2001), but one done with more maturity and confidence. Look how Bala directly “confronts” the issue. This “confrontation” can be very tricky. One has to both make ideas clear and direct and at the same time never stuff them down your throat or be dreadfully didactic. Case in point, Chimbudevan’s Arai En 305-il Kadavul (2008) – an honest but one-sided film that could pass off as a “Sunday school lesson”. Though similar in its ideas about God to Naan Kadavul, it spoon feeds its ideas never knowing when it crossed its boundaries. Take Naan Kadavul. Look at its characters. All of them are like us. They talk about Gods, they make fun of them. For them Gods are no greater than film stars and vice versa. Hell, they are even dressed as Gods but never once take that seriously. For these people, Gods are just another way of livelihood. They beg at places of worship and consider those their “markets”. Oh, but they do believe in Him. Only that they don’t know why. One of the “saints” at the temple quips when another rebukes Murugan for praying regularly “Let him, Why spoil the belief he has?” This is the kind of instinct that these guys have. Not very different from ours, I should say. These are the people who could very well represent a large part our society.

And then there is the contradicting arm of the movie – the character of Rudran. Bala could have easily redone the rational-man-delivering-the-radical-ideologies act, but that would have been one fatal blow to the film. Instead, he chooses a strange man who claims he is God. This instantly makes us repudiate his statements and even ridicule it. As a result, the didactic monologues are avoided and even turned into subtle expressions of Bala’s ideas (The film is called Naan Kadavul and not Naam Kadavul!). Bala is perhaps suggesting this is how every man should be. Every man for himself. Possible, but he never thrusts that idea on us like Arai En 305-il Kadavul. 

The beggar people very well know that they need to make their own lives. Yet, they resort to God as a means of reassurance and security. Sort of Plan-B. What makes Rudran different from the beggar crowd is that he knows that weakness and acknowledges it too, but never calling himself an atheist or a revolutionary. In essence, the film does not make the audience hostile using a “normal” man questioning them, but one that makes it think. “Think” because Bala tantalizes us by not giving but by taking the ideas away from us. And this is how he confronts the delicate theme – through his audience. 

One thing that was running throughout my mind when watching Naan Kadavul was the Slumdog Millionaire debate. No other film recently has generated so much conversations and arguments as Slumdog Millionaire. It has been accused of “pandering to the western fantasies” and “exposing the underbelly of the nation”. Looks at what Bala’s done here. Not better for sure. Even the cheerfulness, hope and escapist mood of Slumdog Millionaire is lost. Naan Kadavul wallows in misery. But it is hilarious and we laugh at all the jokes it makes. Let’s take a look at what evolves.

Naan Kadavul presents three worlds. The first one is the isolated world of its protagonists – one each for Rudran and the beggar team. The second is the world that surrounds them – the “society” in the film. And finally and most importantly, the audience that is on the other side of the screen. See how the behaviour of the three worlds is. Rudran is self-contained. The second world, the one that is around him, is scared of him. There is great satire here too. The police chase away the “saints” that they know are phony.  But when a new one comes in, they are scared. They are unable to come to terms that this one is fake too even if their brain says so. He isn’t, but what if he is? They interrogate him with reverence. We know this is us – throwing in the towel when something seems to transcend reason and more importantly, succumbing to mass hysteria. On the other hand, the audience laughs at these two worlds. Only because it is where it is – the other side of the camera.

Again, the beggar-inhabitants of the first one are self-sufficient. They are occupied with their own work. They cook up their own jokes and celebrate them among themselves. It is a completely different world with its inhabitants challenged in one way or the other. Werner Herzog’s absurdist classic Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970) comes to mind. Bala presents these inhabitants as norms and not anomalies. The difference is brought in only due to the audience’s perception. We see them as a different group. We indulge them knowing that we are “here” and not “there”. The second world is totally oblivious to the first one. They completely ignore the first one and carry on with their lives. They seldom hold a relationship to the first world and when they do, it is only exploitative in nature. And finally, the alienated audience that observes (not without the subjectivity imposed by the cinematic elements) these worlds from a distance. We laugh at the not-so-funny-otherwise jokes made in the first world. We condescend on these characters. We patronize them. We feel good about it. But once we are out of the cinema halls, we step into the shoes of the second world. We have our own hectic lives to worry about. So does that mean Naan Kadavul panders to the needs of the upper and middle class for those three hours? 

Yes, Naan Kadavul is exploitative, but not unlike every other film. Why! Pop cinema by itself is exploitative, for that matter. Happiness, for it, comes only at the expense of misery looming in it somewhere and from the reassurance and distance the film offers the audience. I don’t mean that we should exonerate such films. What I am saying is that one should not zero in on a single film just because it is being celebrated. What we have to go against is the culture that has been aiding to the rise of such cinema. But hey, those are complex functions of everything that has ever been related to a culture and are a part of a larger debate. And for our part, we need to be less sensitive about these issues I guess (I don’t mean irreverence). These things happen. So what? How long do we want to see perfect creatures leading perfect lives that we can only dream of? Not anymore, says Bala.




P.S: If a film can generate elaborate discussion, why not talk about it? I strongly recommend this movie.

[Edit]: I’ll be posting worthy articles on the film whenever I come across. Here is one from The Hindu today. Interesting, though I disagree at places. Mr. Srivathsan doesn’t find the film to be exploitative or manipulative. Here, I must clarify why I feel the film is exploitative. It doesn’t exploit its characters as much as it does the audience. It offers us distance and hence elicits from us a patronizing look on its characters. Ald this is the same way most exploitative films work. If Slumdog Millionaire was exploitative, it is in the same way. But that doesn’t mean the problem is with us. Essentially what is happening is that the filmmaker exploits both the characters and our gaze of them. And the artifice lies in showing them to be happy and self-sufficient. The exploitation would be seen through if the characters were portrayed to be regretting their situation


B for Vendetta

B for Vendetta

I didn’t want to start with this cliché, but Bond is back. This time, loaded with wrath in his heart, distrust in his mind and ammo in his gun. Instant hit Daniel Craig returns for his second performance in the first ever sequel to a bond film. And intriguingly Marc Forster takes the control of the Titanic, much to the concerns of the fans. And to negate the anxiety, the film has been shot in more locations than ever. So, does Quantum of Solace bring back the sheer fun of Goldfinger or does it bring the dreaded minutes of Die Another Day? Or plainly, does it have the licence to thrill?

Quantum of Solace takes off from where Casino Royale (2006) left us with the most stylish Bond ending ever. Bond has just learned his first lesson – one of intense mistrust and callousness. He is shattered by Vasper’s (Eva Green) death and is sets out on a roaring rampage of revenge (sorry Kiddo!). With the help of Eva’s endnote (not another Bond pun!) and Britain’s own forensic service, he traces the whereabouts of Vasper’s extortioner which brings him to Haiti. Almost immediately, he meets Camille (Olga Kurylenko), a borderline femme fatale who herself is on a venture of personal vendetta and intends to avenge the death of her father. Bond finds out that she has close relations with an environmental activist Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric) and employs her to get to him.

Greene says to Bond in one scene: “You make a fine couple – you are both, what is the expression? Damaged goods.” and that is what it is. Camille is Bond’s female counterpart in all sense of the term and equipoised as far as emotional state and instability is concerned. Both of them have lost the ones that they loved the most and both of them are determined to kill for personal relief. They feel tangled in a game they desperately want to finish. Bond helps alleviate Camille’s anxiety but she is unable to reciprocate, in spite of her wishes to free him from the vicious circle of survival and death. With the help of Camille, bond comes to realize that there is more to Greene’s plans than meets the eye. He tracks down Greene’s contacts, which reveals his unimaginable reach only affirming Bond’s now-natural suspicion.

Almost as a generalization, it is the megalomaniacs in Bond films that make them most interesting. Of course, there have been genius inventions such as Goldfinger and Scaramanga and gross mishaps such as Dr. Kananga and Gustav Graves. But it becomes their unwritten duty to make the films quirky, perhaps even lovably cheesy and essentially make them disparate from contemporary franchises such as Indiana Jones or Die Hard. Though the character of Greene is grossly underwritten (like Renard of The World is Not Enough (1999)), it is a very interesting one. He is not a man with steel teeth or huge underground lairs. For heaven’s sake, he does not even carry a gun. But his short stature, the slight hunch and mafia-like charm has enough to make him seem formidable. But as they say in the business world, it is the result that matters. And Greene’s character remains underdeveloped and green (I’m really sorry for that one!).

It is fascinating to see how the franchise has grown in the 46 years of its cinematic existence. From the incessant thriving on cold war and relationship with the Soviets in the Connery era, to chemical warfare and the space race in the Moore era, moving on to the post-Soviet world and the media’s intrusion in world affairs in the Brosnan era and the contemporary issues of terrorism and ecological threats with Craig, the humungous series has reinvented itself time and again to suit and sometimes succumb to the changing face of world culture and politics. The sexist tag on Bond has been discussed, M, a person with immense political power, has been made a woman, and Felix Leiter is now an African American, for crying out loud. All this is evidently a response to the gradual opening up of social outlooks of this mercurial world.

In Quantum of Solace, Greene doesn’t even care about the exhaustive oil race, but for something more rooted in the future and something more dreadful to the human race as a whole – a global issue that has been getting worthy attention in a lot of films off late – although the plot isn’t even relished explicitly by the baddie and not even its consequences stressed upon (another uncharacteristic quality of a Bond film, where the evil plot is usually the driving force for the narrative). Bond finds out Greene’s plans which he executes with the help of the legal privileges of Medrano (Joaquin Cosio), a general who has been trying to overthrow the Bolivian government and the watchful eyes (or rather the absence of it) of the CIA. And like the narrative, Bond does not care much about it and his sole intention is propelled by his need for vengeance.

The film’s basic premise reminds us of the Timothy Dalton starrer Licence To Kill (1989). Both follow Bond’s adventures as he sets out on a personal revenge in order to avenge the death of a beloved. And in both, the grim Bond is considered out of control and his licence to kill is revoked. However, in the older film, Bond never tries to kill almost throughout the whole film. Licence to Kill maintains a kind of tense atmosphere where the upper hand is gained by deceit and espionage and brutal action is but a luxury. And this is where Quantum of Solace itself goes out of control. Mr. Bond thinks by his gun and his primary objective remains dodging the next bullet.

Much talk is going on about how this film is so uncharacteristic of Bond and how un-Bond the franchise has become (yes, I know. No “Bond, James Bond”. No Q, No Moneypenny. No “Shaken, Not Stirred”, No puns…). So has Bond lost his suavity and panache? Yes and No. One should see that the age of Connery thrived on the elegance of the lead and his funny but daring escapades. The style part of the film arose because of the way the character was written and the uninterrupted shots that filmed him. The franchise was more of a spy series than an action till the age of Brosnan after which there has been a marked difference in the way Bond has been catered to the audience. Probably, fuelled by the financial debacle of Licence to Kill, Eon productions was hesitant to perpetuate the series and it was not until 1995 (GoldenEye) that they realized that the character should be marketed differently, perhaps as an influence of the CG wave. And now, the style aspect of the film rises from the progressive technology and the way it is utilized to furnish the high mojo quotient to the series. So it is true that Bond now isn’t what Ian Fleming imagined him to be, but only as a inevitable necessity owing to the changing times. But having said that, there is definitely a scope for marriage of the two eras and decidedly a possibility of restoration of Bond’s lost magic.

With a filmography that is highlighted by films such as Finding Neverland (2004) and The Kite Runner (2007), one wouldn’t place the odds in favour of the debutant Bond director Marc Forster. Perhaps, Forster himself was out on a mission – to prove that he is capable of experimenting with genres. The film seems Coppola-esque in a couple of scenes and Inarittu-ish in another, but maintains a Michael Bay-ian mindlessness almost throughout. High on action, with almost every alternate scene being a high octane automobile chase or a hand to hand combat, the average shot length for most part of the film is perhaps less than half a second and is at times (actually, many times) distracting. It feels like having no space to think or even breathe and of course, no quantum of solace. All of it seems acceptable when one is introduced to the third act. It looks as if the director has chopped off a good twenty minuets off the last act and as a result the whole showdown at the Bolivian desert feels abrupt and hurried.

All said, what is the bottom line? Another high-flying action extravaganza in this year’s tryingly long queue is satisfactory. Not as refreshing as Casino Royale and definitely not as pathetic as Die Another Day (2004), Quantum of Solace is a good film to watch for people who are new to Bond and they wouldn’t have any reason to complain (By the way, the film has a snazzy title track by Jack White and Alicia Keys). But for guys who have been boasting about Bond countdowns and ranting about the best and the worst of Bond, better stick to Connery!


P.S: This brings me to the end of the long and mostly enjoyable Bond marathon. Hope you enjoyed it too.


When Information Technology is lethal

When Information Technology is lethal

Body of Lies is being promoted with the tagline “From the director of Black Hawk Down and American Gangster”.  It is a bit surprising that a director, who has given better films such as Alien (1979) and Blade Runner (1982), has selected two of his lesser films for promotion. But Ridley Scott has the special Knack of jumping from one genre to another genre but still making the film as entertaining as the others. He could well have promoted Kingdom of Heaven (2005) as “From the director of Gladiator and 1492: Conquest of Paradise” or boosted the ratings of the drama A Good Year (2006) as “From the creator of Thelma & Louise and Matchstick Men”.  This time he sticks to the action genre following the moderate success of American Gangster (2007).

Body of Lies follows the Middle Eastern operations of C.I.A as seen by Roger Ferris (Leonardo DiCaprio), an agent who is sent to Amman, Jordan to find clues to the location of Al Saleem (Alon Abutbul), the leader of one of the biggest terrorist organizations around. He is instructed by the higher official in US, Ed Hoffman (Russell Crowe). The whereabouts of Saleem is totally unknown, for the gang neither uses the wired medium nor the wireless one for communication. Ferris decides to take the help of Hani (Mark Strong), the head of the local intelligence who means business and believes that torture and punishment are different. But Hoffman seems to have higher plans, totally oblivious to Ferris, taking its own course based on the whims of the people in power. Trusts are breached, deception becomes the prime weapon and lying becomes the order of the day

In this age of advanced communication and enhanced methods of surveillance, it sounds too easy to detect or monitor a geographical area or even one single person. But Body of Lies reveals otherwise. It tells us that it is not about “In spite of” but about “because of”. Sometimes, it is the concealment of information that helps one gain upper hand and it is the very availability of information that makes one group vulnerable. Hani mentions in the film that America cannot keep a secret because it is democratic. Indeed, it is the ones with the most primitive methods of communication who maintain anonymity and ones like Sadiki fall prey to higher power in the domain.

Russell Crowe time and again comes out with these wonderful supporting roles that one wonders why he doesn’t act more often and in bigger films. His wry wit and over the phone elegance may just earn him a nomination this time too. But the pick, and naturally, is Leo DiCaprio. After his peak of performance in The Aviator (2004), one expects him to cruise through this one and he does. Although not a groundbreaking or fresh role for him, the energy and intensity he infuses into the Ferris character leaves one trembling at the end of the film.

A film that involves communication and, more than that, struggle for it naturally involves various media of conversation and correspondence and the sound department makes crystal clear distinction between, phone lines, walkie-talkies, rendezvous, TV telecasts and footage tapes with élan. And the rhythmic sound editing aids it big time. It is such a good experience watching it in the big screen with a good sound system. The score of the film also needs a special mention and though conventional, Marc Streitenfeld tries different sounds and tempos that separate it from other war scenes and chase sequences.

With a runtime of around two hours and a half, the film is a bit excruciating to watch especially with its incessant thriving on torture scenes, which in other ways do aid the film’s feel. But let’s face it, Ridley Scott’s biggest advantage is the script he churns out with his writers and that is a job half done. William Monahan (The Departed (2006) fame) adapts David Ignatius’ book well and maintains the pace of the film and does not corrupt it with unwanted twists and turns. Even some important plot details are suitably kept off-screen.

A break from the overdose of superheroes this year, it is good to see the normal ones struggling to live for a day. Body of Lies may not be the starting point of the sober films that usually hit the screens in the late part of the year, but definitely serves as the gateway to better films that are going to reap the awards.


"How long are we gonna do the same thing?"

"How long are we gonna do the same thing?"

Cigar. Cuban. Now you pissed me off!” says the protagonist of Guillermo Del Toro’s latest venture Hellboy II: The Golden Army as the baddie’s sidekick Wink, yields a blow to his face, making his favorite tool fall into water. With a face that looks like a cross of a samurai and X-Men mutant beast, Hellboy (Codename Hellboy) is a character right out of the pulp magazines.  And with a name like that and a storyline that aids the use of eye-candy incredibly, the producers would always rest assured. Plus one to the count of superhero films in 2008.

So we have here this bunch of four central ultra-cool mutants – The cigar chewing, beer boozing, borderline-colonel Hellboy (Ron Perlman), the earth element, The timid and brainy Abe (Doug Jones), the  water ingredient, the intensely anxious Liz (Selma Blair), the fire girl and Johann Krauss (James Dodd) the German intellectual forming the wind element of the group bound by (the absence of) the fifth element. All hell breaks loose when the exiled Prince Nuada (Luke Goss) of the mythical world decides to call it quits with the truce with the humans that called for peace and aided the banishment of their indestructible “Golden Army”. The film’s best moment, perhaps, comes around this point where we see the mythical prince practicing his sword in a fairly mythical milieu and just as he finishes, a high speed train whizzes past behind him! One feels that he is in for a great time. NO.

But for this, the prince has to unite the three pieces of the all-powerful golden crown that controls the army and hence break his bonds with his family that preserves two of the pieces. Meanwhile, Hellboy and Liz are trying to reconcile with the discerning eyes of the human world and form a happy little familial world for themselves. And when their paths cross, it’s the same thing all over again. Villain hurts hero, hero gets back big time. All this happens on a high-speed, immensely attractive vehicle called Computer Graphics that seems to never tire the audience. Year after year, be what the form, this boon (?) given by science has been regularly and faithfully exploited.

It is clear that Del Toro has the uncanny ability to blend elements of the ever enchanting world beyond the natural – the mythical – with the harsh realities of the existential one. But where Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) scored was in its treatment of the two worlds. Those worlds never saw each other, those worlds were never affected the clockwork of each other, those worlds were bliss. Here, Del Toro has let one world loose into another, arguably corrupting not only the integrity of the worlds but also of the plot itself. The Golden Army hence becomes no better than a CG-driven superhero flick that succumbs to market demand.

Of course, the film has its own charming moments where you tend to forget all the stereotype moments so far. Consider the scene where Hellboy and Abe retire in the library after a hard day’s work. They listen to “Popular Love Songs”, sipping loads and loads of beer, singing along unabashedly and cruising into a hilariously contemplative mood. One does forget that these guys aren’t humans and smiles all the way. Additionally, Hellboy is amusing with all his one liners and his thinking-with-his-knuckles attitude. But that’s just about everything that you take back from the two hours of runtime. Like Iron Man (2008), The Golden Army also seems to rely too much on these things.

Clichés galore, The Golden Army seems like an exercise in typical Hollywood film craft. The cool and funny gang of superheroes, check. The megalomaniac baddie who turns out to be the boss, check. A thin thread of romance between the good side and the bad one, check. Sacrifice of a lesser but lovable character for the greater good, check. CG flood, manipulative score, tilted camera angles, check, check and check. Once can go on and on, but somebody’s got to do the job. Every year, there seem to come a few films that offer what the audience wants but are so easy to be smashed. But if not for them, we would not be appreciating better ones, would we?



Saroja: From Class to Crass...

Riding on the huge success of Chennai 600028 and on huge expectations from the young crowd, Venkat Prabhu has set out on his new flick Saroja. Much has been spoken about the closely knit team and the boundless enthusiasm that they share. That is a good thing for with a good team comes a great working atmosphere. Unfortunately, Saroja seems to be caught between the choices of being so fascinatingly funny as in Chennai 600028 and the “need” to be different from its predecessor.

The plot spans one day in the lives of four laymen visibly heading towards their thirties, Ajay (Shiva), Ganesh (Premji) and the Babu Brothers (Charan and Vaibhav), who have planned to see a cricket match in Hyderabad. They set out on their bizarre vehicle on to the Hyderabad highway carrying along with them booze in hand and songs on lips. All is fresh and fun at this point and one can be hasty to label it the Indian reply to Easy Rider (1969) or more recently Little Miss Sunshine (2006). The group comes to a scene of accident and is forced to go through a different route. Thanks to the chutzpah of the lead, they take a wrong turn and so does the story.

There is also a parallel thread involving troubled businessman Viswanathan (Prakashraj) whose daughter, the nocturnal titular character, gets kidnapped and solicits the help of police officer Ravichandran (Jayaram) to save her. As events go from bad to worse, the four try to save their skin and return home, in the process meeting the hostage Saroja (Vega), at a pirate factory run by the hoodlum Sampath (Sampath). Additionally, there is a sub-plot involving Sampath and his lover Kalyani (Nikita) using which the filmmakers perhaps intended to portray the character’s depth. And that don’t work man! He is nothing but a textbook stereotype and a photocopy of himself from Polladhavan (2008) and Velli Thirai (2008).

After this point the film goes on. And goes on. And goes on. And goes on…And by the time the supposed-to-be all important scene nears, nobody cares. If you repeat a bad joke over and over, it eventually becomes hilarious. And if you repeat a good one over and over, it becomes sickening. Premji’s typically Kodambakkam attitude and surreal visions are amusing to begin with but as the film meanders, his lines are totally out of place and one feels that he should have had a “I’m just the token jackass required for comic relief” T-shirt on. The Dil Chahta Hai-esque magic that the friends shared in the first half hour is completely lost and one craves for those moments again.

I get the idea that a hand held camera enhances the restlessness and the thrill of a scene, but come on. Almost whole of the hour long showdown is presented in the headache inducing format and the clichéd rapid cuts are nothing but nauseating. And the editor’s scissors seem to be jammed at the most important places. On the positives, everything that takes place in daylight seems so close to heart and has the power to charm any audience. Only the end credits offer any consolation for the unwarranted kidnapping of those moments.

It is saddening to see a film that sets out as a fresh concept and ends up in the gutter of the bandwagon. In some ways, I am reminded of Chimbudevan’s decline after his charming debut in Pulikesi (2007). Venkat Prabhu looked consistent with his couple of films before this one and has ended up, fortunately, marginally better than the former. Let’s hope his penchant for depicting effortless ease among friends remains unmitigated and we get to see a real stunner next time around.