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Saturday, April 18, 2015

Here's Crazy - In conversation with Crazy Mohan



He has redefined comedy in cinema and has been at the forefront of an active theatre culture in Chennai. Crazy Mohan talks about his inspiration, works and the city of Chennai. This interview was published in The Times of India


As we settle for a conversation at the residence of Mohan Rangachari, he is brimming with excitement over the success of his play Chocolate Krishna, which has completed 760 shows and is on the way to touch the 800-show mark. It is not theatre alone that keeps him on his toes. Paintings by him adorn the walls of his home and he excitedly keeps checking the score of a cricket match. But then, writing has been his mainstay.
“Your career is destined regardless of what you study," says Mohan, who did his graduation from the Government College of Engineering, Guindy. "You have to develop as many hobbies as possible at a very young age so that you can take one of them seriously as a career later in life and also have something to look forward to after retirement. God chose me. I didn't choose my career. I only see myself as a custodian of humour."
Going back in time, Mohan gets nostalgic about the people who inspired him in his life, right from his wife, his mother, grandmother and his teacher Janaki. "My teacher sowed the seeds of good literature in me. Under her tutelage, I began reciting lines from Veerapandiya Kattabomman for a play. As a mark of tribute to her, I decided that I would name the heroine in every movie written by me Janaki," he says. There are other names that crop up. "My guru Agnihotram Ramanujar Tatachariar made me see the divine in everyone. In everybody's laughter I can see God. Kanchi Paramacharya once said that a humourist is the closest to God because he makes people happy. To think of it, the origin of slapstick comedy goes back to the puranas, when Vishnu did thoppukaranam to make Ganesha laugh and get the sudarshana chakra out of his belly. But in the space of literature, I was heavily drawn to the humour of Devan and PG Wodehouse. There is exaggeration to the limit of absurdity in the humour of Wodehouse," he says. 
Mohan's flair for the unusual was noticed when he was in college, as he wrote the play The Great Bank Robbery. He got the award for best writer and actor from the hands of Kamal Hassan that year. Little did he know then that the duo would make one of the most successful writer-actor pairs in comedy, in Tamil cinema. "Kamal is a polyglot. He is well-read in many languages. I have many friends who are Palghat Iyers and I used their lingo to the hilt when I wrote Michael Madana Kama Rajan. While writing Thenali, Kamal and I listened to several tapes of Radio Ceylon to get the Ezha Tamil right for his character." 
It's been close to 40 years of writing now and Mohan believes that theatre has improved since 1976, when he started working. Picking his favourites on Chennai's theatre scene, he names Augusto and S Ve Shekher. "I have also been a huge fan of the plays of Balachander, Cho Ramaswamy and Sivaji. Initially, theatres thrived on the sabha model. Today, it is sponsored by corporates. In some ways, theatre has taken the Twenty20 model. But it is fine, as I believe that trend is the best friend." Mohan also says that serious quality work can take time to take off and find recognition. "Remember, when Krishna narrated the Bhagvat Gita, he only had one person in the audience but today, it has won over the world."
Call him a complete Chennaiite and he corrects you promptly. "I am a complete Mylaporean. I was born here, studied at PS High School, my theatre activities were centred around here and even Kamal's office, where I spent a lot of time, was in Alwarpet. I feel homesick even when I go to Mambalam. Before I write the first line of a play, I place them at the feet of Goddess Karpagambal to seek her blessings," he says. So how does he define himself at the end? "I am a jack of all trades and master of fun."

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Decoding a Phenomenon



A review of Rajesh Khanna - The untold story of India's first superstar by Yasser Usman

In a scene from Kati Patang, Rajesh Khanna says, on a rather philosophical and romantic note, to a gathering of pretty girls - Kavita banayi nahi jaati, ban jaati hai, apne aap.... Jab kisi ki sundata, ankhon se hokar mann mein sama jaati hai. Sundarta aisi jo apni nazuk dor se kisi ko apne aur kheech ke sab kuch bhula deti hai, madhosh kar deti hai... ek khoobsurat shaam ki tarah. (Poetry is not written. It just happens when a piece of beauty enters your heart through your eyes. Beauty such, which draws you towards it and makes you forget everything, much like a beautiful evening).

He breaks into Yeh shaam mastani, listening to which an entire generation of women believed that Rajesh Khanna was singing for them. There is a similarity between Khanna's explanation of poetry and his own phenomenon, for no one really knew what drew millions towards him. His superstardom was like the twilight; it existed for a short while but then, his story could never be repeated by any superstar after him. Something similar to Yeh Shaam mastani, madhosh kiye jaaye!
Each woman in the audience believed that every blink of his eyes and every nod of his head was only for her. Girls of the 1970s did not simply go for a Rajesh Khanna movie to see it; they went on a date with him with every movie outing of theirs.

Aradhana, the blockbuster which changed his fortunes,
establishing him as the King of Romance


You get many such details in Yasser Usman's biography of Rajesh Khanna, whose meteoric rise was not only unprecedented, but also quite undecipherable. It's quite tricky for a writer to completely fathom the zenith of a superstar's appeal if he has not grown up watching him. Which is why Yasser begins his book saying, "To Rajesh Khanna. Wish I had witnessed your superstardom." This book helps a reader experience an era, when films didn't run, Rajesh Khanna did.
Yasser begins his journey with the end - the funeral procession of Rajesh Khanna. The sea of humanity that swarmed the streets of Mumbai made him wonder what it must have been like, when Kaka, as Rajesh Khanna was known to all, was at the peak of his superstardom. The author admits that he wasn't a big fan of Khanna himself, which actually lends an element of objectivity to the book. At a time when biographies usually end up as hagiographies, with a customary innocuous negative remark here and there, Yasser's account of Rajesh Khanna brings out the superstar's failings with the same candour with which it brings his dizzying heights of success.  

Rajesh Khanna's fans returned albeit, in his death
The writer has based his research on a plethora of stories and interviews that appeared in the 1970s and 80s in film magazines and journals, such as Star & Style, Stardust and Filmfare. He wasn't able to talk to actress Dimple Kapadia. Hence her side of the story is put together like a jigsaw puzzle from the interviews she gave in the 1980s to various magazines after she walked out of Khanna's home. He has spoken to Khanna's contemporaries as well, but we do not know who they were, for they chose to remain anonymous. But a credible chunk of the story has come from script writer Salim Khan, who has also written the foreword for the book.

Khanna's comic outing with Hrishikesh Mukherjee's Bawarchi
The book reads almost like a movie. Yasser ends the chapters at crucial turning points and the book is well-structured. A couple of editing errors, which are very few in number, could have been avoided. There is an account of Khanna's life before he became a superstar. While his personal life gets a lot of mention, Yasser also analyses the success of his landmark films, such as Anand, Bawarchi and Amar Prem. His rivalry with Amitabh Bachchan and his descent are elaborately written.

Does this book help a reader understand the phenomenon of Rajesh Khanna, the superstar? To a great extent it does. You can almost feel the hysteria around Khanna and will agree (even if you are not his fan) that no superstar could ever achieve the zenith that Rajesh Khanna did. But does it explain the psyche of Jatin Khanna, the human being? To some extent. In parts, the writer is as puzzled as the people who lived around Khanna at that time, for Rajesh Khanna seldom revealed what was in his mind to anyone. The most beautifully written chapters of the book describe the fame that came to Khanna after the unexpected blockbuster Aradhana, his meeting with Anju Mahendroo, many years after their split and the last years of his life, when Rajesh Khanna fought hard to win back his fans. And the fans did return, though with his death.
It's quite strange that while many books have been written on Dilip Kumar, Raj Kapoor, Amitabh Bachchan and even Shah Rukh Khan, Hindi cinema's biggest superstar was left untouched by many biographers. This one could very well be a benchmark for a biography on Rajesh Khanna.

Friday, December 12, 2014

First Day, First Show - The Rajini Phenomenon

Image: The Times of India

There is nothing quite spectacular like the release of a Rajinikanth blockbuster in Tamil Nadu. His superstardom has got cemented with each successive release. This year, with his birthday coinciding with the release of his blockbuster Lingaa, the celebration cannot get bigger. The idea of First Day, First Show cannot be explained in words when it comes to a Rajinikanth film in Tamil Nadu.

Crackers are being burst and the cut outs of Rajnikanth, towering over cinema halls, are being offered ablutions with milk. In the days to come, houseful boards will be the mainstay at many theatres in Chennai. In the last few days, Rohit Menon, a city-based marketing professional, has been trying to get tickets of Lingaa, only to be disappointed.“I wanted to go for a first-day, first show with my family and friends. But I haven't been able to get any ticket for Friday and I will have to miss this opportunity . It's a big deal to watch a Rajinikath film on day one,“ says Rohit.
Having shifted to Chennai five years back, he saw the frenzy around Enthiran (2010) and was awed by the hysteria around the film on the day of the release.“I grew up on Amitabh Bachchan in Mumbai and to see the aura that surrounds Rajinikanth is totally mind-blowing,“ he says. The journey has been similar for Amrit Raj, whose exposure to Rajinikanth began with movies like Hum, Andha Kanoon and Chaalbaaz in the 1980s. “The whole decade of 1990s, when the Rajini phenomenon took the south by storm, people in the north were quite untouched by it,“ says Amrit, for whom things changed in 2007, when Sivaji: The Boss, was released in theatres in the north, dubbed in Hindi. “Moviegoers in the north were totally taken by surprise when they got a tryst with this frenzy that swept the country and it just grew bigger over the last few years,“ he says.

Pradeep Jain, who trades in dubbed films in the Hindi market, says that Rajini's popularity in the north started shooting northwards with the dubbed release of Sivaji and went through the roof with Robot, the Hindi version of Enthiran. “Later, Basha and Chandramukhi were also dubbed for satellite release and even today, Sivaji and Robot fetch high TRPs on television every time it is aired,“ he says.

It goes without saying that the release of a Rajini film is a festival in itself. “It's a collective celebration and people usually do not go for a Rajinikanth film alone. It's an experience they have with their friends and family members. My father-in-law is 80 and yet, he wants to watch Rajini's film on the first day . That's his charisma, which attracts cinegoers from the age of eight to 80,“ says V R Shankar, Manager, Devi Cineplex. Today, with a huge majority of cinema halls having gone the road of online booking, the serpentine queues one witnessed in the 1990s might not be a feat to rival. “In 1995, when Muthu was released, it had a phenomenal run here and Rajinikanth turned into an inimitable icon with back-to-back hits. But the wonderful thing about him is that he still is the undisputed superstar of Indian cinema,“ says Shankar, who remembers Rajini visiting Devi theatre for the shooting of Annai Oru Aalayam, in the late 1970s.

While growing up in Ayanavaram in the 1990s, Justin George never missed a single first day, first show viewing of a Rajinikanth film. He would have posters of Rajini pasted all over the walls of his room, only to be rebuked by his parents later. “The very first memory of cinema I have is watching his Panakkaran (1990) in a theatre, when I was three years old.Every time a new release of Rajini came out, I would run to a nearby shopkeeper, who sold the latest film posters. I saw the first shows of Muthu, Arunachalam, Basha, Padayappa and Sivaji on the first day of their release. There were occasions when I got beaten up when the police tried control the swelling crowd outside the cinema halls. We would fight tooth and nail to lay our hands on a ticket,“ says Justin as he goes on to describe his experience in further detail. “On the first day, you can't even listen to the dialogues or even follow the story . There will just be a larger-than-life jubilation in the theatre, which is beyond description. That would be the case in many single screens across Chennai and even today, that's how it is in the single screens,“ he says. 

It was in his school that Rajinikanth began his first tryst with acting. During his school days, Rajinikanth spent a lot of his time acting in plays. On one such occasion, he played the role of the Kaurava prince Duryodhan in the play Kurukshetra.This was, perhaps, just the beginning of many negative shades that he would play in his career and in his early days, he played the anti-hero and villain to the hilt in movies like Apoorva Ragangal, Moondru Mudichu and 16 Vayathinile.

When Nishanth Ramakrishnan is not busy with his MBA classes in a B-School, he acts in short films and also makes some of them. An aspiring actor, he has seen Rajini films like Thillu Mullu, Basha and Thalapathi over and over again. “I have seen Apoorva Ragangal many times over just to see him opening the gate in the scene where he is introduced for the first time. Purely from the standpoint of entertainment, he has enormous style, which is his forte. Whether it is the Rajini of the 1970s or the Rajini of today, there has been a class in his style, which has only endured over time. People keep asking who will be the next superstar. I think he is the only superstar,“ he says. 

There is news pouring in from fans queuing up outside Sathyam cinemas the first day, first show of Lingaa right from 2am. The first show of a Rajini film doesn't wait for sunrise. The sun rises to a Rajini film.

This appeared in the special feature Naan Rajini, brought out by The Times of India, to mark the birthday of Rajinikanth

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Upkar - The birth of Mr Bharat


Thanks to new TV channels like Zee Classic and Set Max2, a lot of old Hindi classics have gained entry into our drawing rooms yet again. During the Doordarshan days, we would invariably end up watching Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi on Aug 15 or Oct 2 every year. Yesterday, I happened to watch Upkar (1967) after many years. Since childhood, the one song that has been an instant recall at the very mention of patriotism has been Mere desh ki dharti
A nation resting on the rifles of its soldiers
 and hoes of the farmers
The name Bharat stuck onto Manoj Kumar after Upkar
and he used this name in his later films as well
Manoj Kumar had written and directed Upkar, a story about two brothers – Bharat (Manoj Kumar) and Puran (Prem Chopra), who choose different paths in life. Bharat, who supports the family working in the fields every day, is educated but chooses to stay back in the village, as he feels that it’s one’s duty to till the land and feed the nation. Puran studies in the city and wants to return to the comforts that come with urban life. Differences crop up between the brothers, after Puran’s ears are poisoned by his uncle and a local trader. Very soon, he demands the partition of their ancestral land. Bharat, in order to maintain the dignity of his land, gives it entirely to Puran and walks away to join the army. War breaks out between India and Pakistan. Puran joins ranks with hoarders and black marketers, who create an artificial food shortage in the market. Bharat gets badly injured in the war and returns, almost bleeding to death.  Meanwhile, Puran, realising the malicious intent of his uncle, becomes a government approver and helps the police nab hoarders and black marketers. Bharat needs to be operated upon and his hands have to be cut off. Bharat undergoes great mental agony after he loses his hands in an operation. But the next day, he sees Puran tilling their ancestral land. Bharat has regained the arms, once lost to partition. The favours (Upkar) of the mother earth can now be returned.
Asha Parekh as Doctor Kavita,
who studies in a city but practices in the villages

Upkar was the genesis of Prem Chopra donning shades of grey,
before he went on to play villanous roles in other films

Upkar begins where Manoj Kumar's Shaheed (based on the life of Bhagat Singh) ends and tells the story of a nation fighting its problems after independence. While Shaheed was about the struggle involved in creating a new nation, Upkar discusses the issues involved in preserving the integrity of a young nation state. The film opens with a dedication to the former Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri. Manoj Kumar had shown his film Shaheed to Shastri, who was very impressed with the work and asked Manoj Kumar to make a film on the farmers and jawans of India. It’s with that thought that Upkar’s story was written. After independence, India’s educated elite, especially the English-educated, saw themselves as different from the masses of the country and failed to understand the real issues of India. In such a scenario came Manoj Kumar’s Bharat, who was educated but chose to fight the problems of his motherland. India was undergoing an acute food crisis in the mid 1960s and Shastri had then decided to fast every Monday, a practice, which was replicated by masses across the country in solidarity with the PM. Led by a morally upright Prime Minister, the average Indian was willing to slog an extra mile to see a better tomorrow. 
The storyline revolved around most of the burning issues of the 1960s. This generation was born a few years before independence and was also the last torchbearer of Gandhian idealism. This group often came in conflict with the group that was growing restless and wanted to break off from the old rules. Collectivism of India was in direct conflict with the new individualistic culture.  Urbanisation had made land a commodity and inadequate agricultural production pushed the nation towards starvation. Rural life has obviously been glorified in Upkar. Urban India has been criticized for encouraging a new class structure, where one section consists of owners and the other of workers.
Upkar marked the beginning of a new phase in Pran's career.
As Malang chacha, he made a shift to character roles
Kamini Kaushal, as the mother, was a metaphor for a nation
 that could not afford another partition
Bharat’s battle against hoarders, overpopulation and rural-urban migration constantly resonated with the masses who watched Upkar, who wanted the old idealism to live on. Asha Parekh played the village doctor Kavita, who spoke to the women about family planning and its advantages, a decade before Sanjay Gandhi launched his sterilization campaign. Asha Parekh wanted to be a doctor in real life but ended up in the film industry and hence, was elated to play the role of a doctor on-screen . The rise of demagogues and public rationing is attacked in Pran’s dialogue, “ Rashan (Ration) pe bhashan bohot milta hai, par bhashan pe rashan koi nahi”. Kanhaiyalal, who had made the character of Sukhilala, the evil money lender, immortal in Mother India, repeated his feat in Upkar as well.
Puran returns to lend support to his elder brother after he loses his hands
and repay the debts of Mother Earth
Aruna Irani made a brief appearance in one of her early roles
In the scene where Puran demands partition of the ancestral land, his brother says, almost echoing a wounded nation, “Main Bharat hoon. Hamesha hi batware ke khilaf raha hoon. Main batwara hone nahi doonga.” (I’m Bharat. I’ve always been against partition and I will not let it happen). It was the voice of a nation that had been cut into three two decades back. The release of Upkar also coincided with the Green Revolution, which changed the face of agriculture for in the northern plains for a long time.

Manoj Kumar went on to make Purab Aur Paschim a few years later, where he tackled the topic of brain drain. Upkar caught the imagination of the nation. In 1968, the film was the top grosser at the box office and won six Filmfare awards, for Best Lyricist (Gulshan Bawra - Mere desh ki dharti), Best Dialogue, story and director (Manoj Kumar), Best Supporting Actor (Pran) and Best Movie. Mahendra Kapoor won the National Award for the song Mere desh ki dharti and Upkar also won the President’s silver medal for the Best Feature film. Many parts of Upkar might seem didactic today but nevertheless, the fears expressed in the movie continue to haunt the country even today. In the end, Upkar is a call to the nation to rise and take collective responsibilities. It's sad that  Manoj Kumar has become a subject for parodies today, with his face palm gesture. But his Bharat continues to be the prototype of a patriotic hero, who takes ownership and delivers for a cause. Let the idealism live on.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

A trailblazer called Hum Aapke Hain Koun


Yesterday, an entire generation was made to feel old, after being told that Hum Aapke Hain Koun turned 20. Time just flies like no one's business. Every year, some film or the other celebrates a milestone. But Hum Aapke Hain Koun was not any other film. It was not just nostalgia that made this film important for us. Sooraj Barjatya's Hum Aapke Hain Koun changed the dynamics of the Hindi film industry forever; it wasn't just another blockbuster.

Having spent my childhood in the Middle East, I never went to a theatre to watch a film for a long time in my life. But it wasn't just me who was away from the theatres in the 1980s. The Hindi film industry, in the 1980s, went down the drain completely and lost its theatre audience to video cassette libraries and television serials. Yes, there were blockbusters coming out every year. But the condition of theatres had gone from bad to worse. Hence, Hum Aapke Hain Koun was released only in a limited number of theatres across the country, where the entire family could have a good viewing experience. The film premiered at Liberty Cinema in Mumbai, on August 5, 1994 and viewers thronged to those limited theatres where it was being screened. Across the country, many theatre owners took cue and began renovation activities in their cinema halls. The family audience, which had remained away for over a decade, was returning to the theatres.


Madhuri Dixit came to be known as female Amitabh Bachchan
 after delivering back-to-back blockbusters

Shooting the climax scene

But the ground for Hum Aapke Hain Koun was being prepared right through the late 1980s. At the core of Hum Aapke Hain Koun was the idea of family, drawn from the Indian epic Ramayan. Ramanand Sagar's blockbuster TV serial in 1987 created a longing for the good old family values among the audience. There were reported instances of siblings having buried their differences after watching the serial, especially the Ram-Bharat milap episode. The collectivist spirit of the Indian society (as opposed to the individualism of the western society), with the joint family system as its base, was revived. But in real, India was changing. Urbanisation had led to the rise of nuclear families and the joint family system was largely a piece of nostalgia, a reminder of 'the idea of home' for most Indians, especially the NRIs settled in various foreign countries. Sooraj Barjatya's first production Main ne pyar kiya, was in many ways an early indication of what he sought to deliver to the Indian audience. Romance had been killed in an era of violence and revenge through the late 1970s and 80s. Main ne pyar kiya and Qayamat se qayamat tak set the standard for the kind of cinema that would dominate in the 1990s.
Hum Aapke Hain Koun also made a superstar out of Madhuri Dixit. This diva was launched by Rajshris in Abodh (1984), in which Sooraj Barjatya was an assistant director. But after Hum Aapke Hain Koun, she wasn't just another star. Sobriquets like 'Female Amitabh Bachchan' were being showered on her. Salman Khan carried forward the lover boy Prem for the next few years, till he realised the Dabangg side of his persona. 

Music became a major highlight of this movie, with 14 songs!
Sooraj Barjatya giving instructions to Reema Lagoo
To think of it, Hum Aapke Hain Koun did not even have an original story. It was a remake of Rajshri's 1982 hit Nadiya Ke Paar. The story, set in the rural heartland, was adapted to suit the urban sensibilities of the 1990s. While romance was an important highlight of Hum Aapke Hain Koun, at the core of it was the fulcrum of family. While many critics wrote off the film as an extended wedding album, it had struck the right chord among moviegoers. The decade of 1980s was a time when people skipped the songs while watching movies on their VCRs or worse, many libraries even deleted songs according to their whims. Songs were treated as toilet breaks in theatres. But how could one delete songs in a movie where relationships were forged over songs and dances? Hum Aapke Hain Koun restored the lost glory of the Hindi film song, though the trend began with the musical success of Main ne pyar kiya and Qayamat se qayamat tak. HMV, which was running on losses, saw brighter days after 1989.
Today, the coy smiles of Renuka Shahane, the didactic and sanskari lectures of Alok Nath and the silly idea of a widower being married to his sister-in-law might elicit laughter. Many spoofs of Hum Aapke Hain Koun can be found in social media and their observations are not misplaced. But there can be no denial that Hum Aapke Hain Koun was the need of that era. Along with Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (1995), it was a breath of fresh air in a time filled with gore and blood.
Madhuri won a new fan in painter MF Hussian,
who made a series of paintings on her

 For those born in the 1980s, watching Hum Aapke Hain Koun in the theatre with their family was the dominant movie viewing experience to cherish from their early years. So hugely successful it was that for many south Indian friends of mine, this was the first Hindi movie they watched in a theatre. It ran for an incredible 100 weeks at Liberty Cinema, where it premiered and joined the ranks of Mughal-e-azam and Sholay to become one of the biggest grossers in the history of Hindi cinema. So while we laugh our hearts out watching Salman and Madhuri fight over a pair of shoes through a song, we cannot quite write off a film, which not only formed an impressionable childhood experience for an entire generation, but also made filmmakers consider 'family' as their target audience while making a film.

Friday, January 24, 2014

The charm of Dedh Ishqiya


A major challenge faced by most script writers while coming out with a sequel is that they have to dish out something that will retain elements of the old and yet, will captivate the audience with something absolutely fresh. Abhishek Chaubey's Ishqiya had a finely written script, street smart humour, strong characters and some wonderful songs. Retaining many of these elements, Dedh Ishqiya is the first hit of the year and what a pleasant way to start off!

Dedh Ishqiya  brings back Ifteqar (known as Khalu, played by Nasseruddin Shah) and Babban (Arshad Warsi), who land up in another mess while finding crooked ways to make easy money. They steal an expensive necklace from a store and many adventures lead them to a poetry symposium being organised by Begum Para (Madhuri Dixit), the widowed begum of Mehmudabad, who will marry the best poet from the gathering. Ifteqar sees a good opportunity to spend the rest of his life there in peace and Babban takes wildly to Begum’s maid and confidante Muniya (Huma Qureshi). But beneath all this facade of poetry, the imposters fall in deep trouble, not before they cover the seven steps of love.


Nasseruddin Shah and Arshad Warsi maintain the momentum of their chemistry seen in Ishqiya. The only other pair that which has ticked off well in popular imagination is that of Munna and circuit in the Munnabhai series. Their fun, repartees and insecurities bring in plenty of homourous moments. It is wonderful to see that Shah lets the talent of his female co-stars come to the fore, be it in IshqiyaThe Dirty Picture or Dedh Ishqiya. Actors like Vijay Raaz and Manoj Pahwa, who seldom get roles they are worthy of, shine through the film.
There are two things you should thank the makers of Dedh Ishqiya  for having brought back to cinema – Madhuri Dixit and the genre of Muslim social. Madhuri dances like a dream to the steps of Pandit Birju Maharaj's choreography, who has worked on the wonderful kathak piece Jagaye saari raina. As the Begum who takes to dance after ages, Madhuri springs like a bird freed out of her cage. She finely balances the coquetry of a courtesan with the elegance of an aristocrat, seasoned with oodles of humour. Watching her you wonder how her talent was largely wasted by filmmakers in the 1990s. To complement her at every step is Huma Qureshi, whose comic timing and brazen acts are a joy to watch. It’s heartening to find a beautiful story on female bonding, which has rarely been explored in Hindi cinema. In Ishqiya , Vidya Balan stole the thunder from the very talented Arshad Warsi and Nasseruddin Shah. Even in the sequel, the women are the real show stealers. 

Begum Para and Muniya, in a rare story of female bonding
The Muslim social genre once ruled the roost with movies like Chaudhvin ka Chand, Mere Mehboob and Mughal-e-azam in the 1960s. The genre waned by the end of 1960s and Kamal Amrohi's Pakeezah was its last fort of its glory. In the later period, the attempts towards revival with MS Sathyu's Garam Hawa, Muzzafar Ali's Umrao Jaan and Sagar Sarhadi's Bazaar were rather scattered. But these were flash in the pan appearances and the genre was almost dead. But Dedh Ishqiya has given a glimpse into that genre once again. There is an element of hiraeth in it, a longing for the past, which surfaces throughout the film. Begum Para tries to uphold a culture that has few takers today. There is a hint of movies like Satyajit Ray's Jalsaghar, where the old world zamindars create an atmosphere of the bygone world in their private space for their psychological satisfaction. But the era has ended and as we see it, Begum Para knows it too well. 

Like his previous films, Vishal Bhardwaj has given music that blends well with the story. What is notable about in Dedh Ishqiya is the inclusion of some of the most memorable ghazals of Begum Akhtar, one of the greatest ghazal singers of the 20th century. What better way of evoking the milieu of a bygone era than entreating us to gems like Woh jo hum mein tum mein qarar tha and Hamari atariya pe. Vishal Bhardwaj proves his mettle as a dialogue writer too. Listening to those repartees and couplets in chaste Urdu is sheer eutony.

There are loose ends in the script. Why did Begum stop dancing? How did Ifteqar know her during his teenage years? Did they have a strong relationship and did the Begum really love him? Abhishek has given this peek into their past and it leads to nowhere, ending up as an unnecessary distraction. The women do not have as strong a back-story or a finely layered personality as the protagonist Krishna (Vidya) did in Ishqiya.

Sometimes you wonder how can no-brainers like Chennai Express and Dhoom 3 make money in billions, while a movie like Dedh Ishqiya, with all the elements of a quality entertainer, doesn't get a blockbuster opening. But history decides which film is worthy of being watched over and over again and when that stock is taken years later, Dedh Ishqiya  will not find much trouble fighting for a space. Madhuri's charm, its lilting music and the bravura performances will only endure with time.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Guns and Roses - A review of Ram Leela


After more than a decade, Sanjay Leela Bhansali returns to the turf he is most familiar with – the rural terrains of Gujarat, brightened up with the colours of its festivals, costumes, dhols, opulent sets and striking dialogues. Add to this the intensity of a shakespearean drama diffused with countless splutters of blood, along with elements of Bhansali's previous movies and Goliyon Ki Raasleela Ram-Leela is ready.
The movie is an adaptation of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, and tells the story of love between Ram (Ranveer Singh) and Leela (Deepika Padukone), who come from two warring groups in the hinterlands of Gujarat.  The relationship, that begins flirtatiously during a Holi celebration, ripens as the movie proceeds and the couple find themselves held back by deep rooted hatred, which has grown between the two groups over the past five centuries. They elope and try to set a world of their own in an attempt to erase their bloody history with their love.

Right from the opening scene to the closing credits, you can hear echoes of Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam and Devdas. Sometimes they appear in the form of song sequences, tunes or even a few dialogues and picturisations. You are likely to admire this movie only if you loved the above mentioned films. At some points, the roses of the lovers seem to get lost in the firing of the guns. The songs, composed by Bhansali himself, are not consistently good. Some even stand out like a sore thumb in the album.  
But there are many reasons to celebrate Ram Leela. For a change, he places this movie in a real time and space, unlike his last two ventures which were set in some fairy land. The background score of Monty is among the best this year and it beautifully enunciates the emotions and high decibel drama of the film. While Ranveer Singh delivers a commendable performance, it is Deepika who shines bright all through the film. Their chemistry sets the screen ablaze, especially in the sensuous notes of Ang laga de re. Performance is indeed the high point of the movie. From Richa Chadda and Barkha Bisht as the widowed sisters-in-law of Leela and Ram, to Abhimanyu Singh as Ram's brother, they are a delight to watch. But it is Supriya Pathak who steals the thunder as the matriarch Dhankor Baa (Deepika's mother), who never for a moment seems out of character. The closing song Laal Ishq is a gem, that seems to be a fitting ode to love.

But besides being a retelling of Romeo and Juliet, Bhansali beautifully incorporates elements of the Ramayana. From the abduction of Sita and the toughness assumed by Ram as a king to the metaphoric killing of Ravan at the end, the director blends a shakespearean drama with the Indian epic seamlessly. All these merits aside, the rich visual splendour of Ram Leela itself is worth a watch in a theatre. In spite of the director going overboard at many instances, Ram Leela is a romantic battle that is worth a watch.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Kaun aaya - The unforgettable notes of Manna Dey



I was hardly six years old when I watched Ramu Kariat's classic blockbuster Chemmeen (1965), which took the Malayalam film industry by storm. It is a film, which every Malayali is initiated into, right from his childhood. The only scene I retained for a long time to come was the one where Pareekutty (Madhu) sings  a ballad calling for his love Karuttamma (Sheela). The song was Manasa mayine varu. I was surprised years later, when I came to know from my mother that the songs of Chemmeen, which evoked a rich imagery of the coastline of Kerala, were composed by Salil Chowdhary, a Bengali. But then, Manna Dey too was a son of Bengal, whom the Malayalis lapped up for this song.

I had seen Raj Kapoor and Nargis under the umbrella in a rainy night singing Pyar hua ikrar hua several times, without knowing that it was Manna Dey who gave us this memorable number. There were many such gems from the golden era of Hindi cinema, which were immortalised by him. To think of it, he was the last living male singer from that era in our midst. Mukesh passed away in the mid 1970s, while Rafi and Kishore Kumar left a decade later. Talat Mahmood died quite a silent death in 1998; we had not heard from his right from the 1960s. Mahendra Kapoor passed away in 2008. But a fact not known to many is that Manna Dey began his singing career in films before any of them, in 1942, even before Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhonsle got their first solo song.

Among the earliest songs he sang was Tyagmayi tu gayi, for Vijay Bhatt's Ram Rajya (1943). His uncle KC Dey, who was a leading singer, was supposed to sing it but suggested his nephew's name instead. At the age of 24, Manna Dey sang a song that was picturised on the character of an aged Valmiki. For some reason, throughout his career, Manna Dey ended up singing more songs picturised on character artistes, than the young heroes. Many a time, he did not even know that the song would end up being picturised on old men or wandering minstrels (as in Boot Polish, Parineeta and Devdas).
A huge opportunity came to him in the mid 1950s, when Mukesh decided to focus on acting career (which  never took off) and gave a pause to his singing. That was when Raj Kapoor approached Manna Dey to sing the songs of Shree 420 and Chori Chori. In one of his interviews, Manna Dey recollected how Raj Kapoor and Nargis had enacted the entire sequence of Pyar hua ikrar hua before him and Lata as the song was being recorded. The result was magical. Both these films were huge musical hits, with the magic of Shree 420 travelling to Russia and the Middle East. The partnership with Raj Kapoor extended to movies like Dil Hi Toh Hai (Laaga chunri mein daag), Teesri Kasam (Chalat musafir moh liyo re) and Mera  Naam Joker (Ae bhai zara dekh ke chalo). But at the end of the day, Mukesh remained etched in popular memory as Raj Kapoor's voice.

In complete contrast to the philosophical overtones of these songs, he was also the voice of Mehmood and gave an unbelievable tit-for-tat to Kishore Kumar in Ek chatur naar (Padosan). Who can forget his Hum kale hain toh kya hua dilwale hain (Gumnaam). It became an anthem for those Indians, who were undeterred by their dark skin in their pursuit of love. Who didn't gyrate to the peppy party number Aao twist karen, again picturised on Mehmood in Bhoot Bangla?
But more than anything else, he shone most in his classical numbers and was given those rare opportunities, which even Rafi could never get, for all the backing he got from Naushadl. In the 1950s, when Shankar Jaikishen (till then seen as makers of popular music) got a chance to prove their mettle in classical music, they decided to recreate a similar spectacle as Naushad did with Baiju Bawra. They roped in Pandit Bhimsen Joshi for the jugabandi Ketaki gulab juhi and had Manna Dey at the other end to reply to his musical might! Manna Dey shirked at the prospect of having to challenge the legend. Even Naushad had someone like Ustad Amir Khan to face a titan like Pandit DV Paluskar in Baiju Bawra. Not only did Manna Dey shine through with brilliance, he even won praises from Pandit Bhimsen Joshi for his flawless rendition.

As a matter of fact, Manna Dey could have easily made a career in classical music as well. But he chose to be in films. His voice had the depth and gravity to pull of any difficult bandish. In the 1970s, he got many offers to sing for younger actors like Rajesh Khanna and Dharmendra and he immortalised songs like Zindagi kaisi hai paheli (Anand) and Yeh dosti hum nahi todenge (Sholay). It was his genius that he adapted his voice so well for actors across ages at the same time - character actors like Balraj Sahni (Ae meri zonrajabeen) and Pran (Kasme vaade pyar wafa) on one hand and the young upcoming ones on the other. I cannot even write in detail about his Bengali songs, where his contribution was immense. But the one rendition that I will carry forever was his adaptation of Harivanshrai Bachchan's Madhushala. Every couplet got a new meaning in his voice. Perhaps, he did not win the rat race because he never participated in it.

Jinhone sajaaye yahan mele, sukh dukh sang sang jhele,

Wohi chunkar khaamoshi, yun chali jaaye akele kaha

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Aftertaste of The Lunchbox - a review


The Lunchbox (Dabba) won the Critics Week Viewers Choice Award at the 2013 Cannes film festival

Sometimes, a wrong train can take you to the right destination. This is the premise of Ritesh Batra’s The Lunchbox, produced by Anurag Kashyap, Guneet Monga, Karan Johar, Siddharth Roy Kapur and Arun Rangachari.
Saajan Fernandez (Irrfan Khan), a no-nonsense, lonely widower, is having one more month to go for his retirement at a government office. A new employee at the office, Shaikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), is supposed to take over from him and constantly tries to learn work from him in vain. One day, a lunchbox is wrongly delivered to Saajan by a dabbawala and he relishes his lunch after a long time. The box, packed by Ila (Nimrat Kaur), was meant for her husband (Nakul Vaid), who is indifferent to her efforts to cook something new for him everyday. However, Ila basks in this new appreciation for her cooking from this stranger and sends him a note of thanks. The story is unfolded through a series of notes exchanged between Ila and Saajan, where they share special and mundane aspects of their everyday life. Ila constantly seeks advice from a neighbourhood aunt (Bharati Achrekar), who is only heard, but not seen throughout the film. As the date of retirement finally comes for Saajan, it is time for him and Ila to take stock of their lives and arrive at a decision.


Ritesh infuses The Lunchbox with a lot of warmth and compassion.  Many elements in this movie seem to be a fond recollection of the times we lived in many years ago. Sometimes, they appear in the form of handwritten notes in an age of sms and emails and sometimes, through a friendly banter between Ila and the neighbourhood aunt, in an age when we do not even know the names of our neighbours. Saajan spends a few evenings playing video cassettes of the popular sitcom Ye Jo Hai Zindagi, to relive the moments he spent with his wife, though with a tinge of regret of not having given enough time to her. With the stranger Saajan coming in, Ila gets a reason and incentive to live her life. Shaikh, who has grown up as an orphan, strikes a chord with Saajan and builds a life out of the broken pieces handed over to him.
The Lunchbox is driven by its well written script and stellar performances. While Irrfan and Nawazuddin yet again prove their mettle, Nimrat is a true discovery. She matches the performances of these wonderful actors with ease. Without appearing in a single frame, Bharati Achrekar endears herself to the viewers with her witty remarks and free advice. Even as the story flows seamlessly, we get brilliant shots of Mumbai, with its bus rides, local trains and streets bursting with people. With understated dialogues, warm performances and a relatable storyline, The Lunchbox gives you a memorable aftertaste.

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