Tag Archives: 2005

Movie Review: Being Cyrus (2005)

Zero Stars (out of 4)

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Rarely do I wish that an Indian film was longer, given that the majority are nearly two-and-a-half hours long. But Being Cyrus, which runs only 89 minutes, seems far too short to give its damaged characters time to develop. Or maybe the characters and story were poorly conceived to begin with, and no amount of time would’ve allowed them to develop.

The presumptive lead character of the film is the titular Cyrus (Saif Ali Khan), an adult orphan who answers an ad for an artist’s assistant. The artist is Dinshaw Sethna (Naseeruddin Shah), a recluse so stoned that he doesn’t recall placing the ad. Dinshaw’s horny, attention-starved wife, Katy (Dimple Kapadia), insists that Cyrus move in with them and be their errand boy.

Early on, the film relies heavily on Cyrus’ narration (in English) to explain the complex relationships within the Sethna family. The withered patriarch, Fardounjee (Honey Chhaya), lives in squalor under the care of Dinshaw’s cruel and cheap industrialist brother, Farrokh (Boman Irani), and Farrokh’s meek young wife, Tina (Simone Singh). Dinshaw, again, is too stoned to care what’s happening to his dad.

Katy gives Cyrus a stack of cash and sends him to the city to bring treats to poor old Fardounjee. This angers Farrokh. However, Farrokh and Katy are carrying on a romantic affair over the phone. I’m not sure why she’d want to intentionally piss off her beloved, but there’s an awful lot about Being Cyrus that doesn’t make sense.

Following the introduction of an annoying police inspector played by Manoj Pahwa, Cyrus goes on a killing spree before the film culminates in an unforeseeable twist ending. (Damn you, The Usual Suspects, for spawning a generation of inferior twist endings!) There’s no possible way events could’ve been managed to work out the way they did, despite the claims of Cyrus’ accomplice to have controlled everything. There’s not even an attempt at retroactive continuity.

For a twist ending to work, there need to be clues to the ending sprinkled throughout the story. Being Cyrus doesn’t have any of those clues, nor even a narrative thread to speak of. Rather, the film jumps from scene to scene randomly. Most of the notes I wrote while watching the DVD consist of: “How did we get here?” and “Why is this happening?”.

Things would be different if Being Cyrus was a sophisticated or complex movie, but it’s not. It’s the messy first effort of director-screenwriter Homi Adajania, whose debut is light on context and character motivation.

Watching the loathsome, anemic characters of Being Cyrus bumble through the disjointed plot is a grim, unpleasant experience I wouldn’t wish upon anyone, no matter how brief the punishment may be.

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Movie Review: Bluffmaster! (2005)

3 Stars (out of 4)

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After being disappointed by Dum Maaro Dum, I decided to check out the first collaboration between Abhishek Bachchan and director Rohan Sippy: Bluffmaster! The pair’s first effort is clearly the superior of the two.

Bachchan stars in Bluffmaster! as conman Roy Kapoor. His heists have netted him loads of cash, and he has a sweet girlfriend named Simi (Priyanka Chopra) who thinks he’s a stockbroker. Simi learns the truth about him when a movie producer Roy conned shows up at their wedding.

Six months later, as Roy mourns his failed relationship with Simi, he watches a pair of small-time con artists trick a doctor out of his wallet. Roy retrieves the wallet and earns the friendship of the doctor, Bhalerao (Boman Irani). One of the cons, Dittu (Ritesh Deshmukh) is so impressed with Roy’s skills that he asks to become Roy’s student.

While Roy contemplates Dittu’s offer, he begins experiencing blackouts. Dr. Bhalerao discovers an inoperable brain tumor and gives Roy just months to live. Given Roy’s history of untruths, Simi assumes Roy’s brain tumor story is a trick and slams the door on him.

Dittu, unaware of Roy’s condition, explains that a prominent hotelier tricked his father out of his life savings. Roy decides to spend the little time he has left helping Dittu get his father’s money back. It’s the first time in Roy’s life that he’s ever put someone else’s needs above his own.

What distinguishes Bluffmaster! from Dum Maaro Dum is the former’s superior plot structure. While Dum Maaro Dum is mired in flashbacks and sideplots, Bluffmaster! moves forward at a steady clip. Just as it appears Roy may have a chance to win Simi back after all, his scheme with Dittu becomes more complicated than he expected. All the while, the threat of imminent death hangs over Roy’s head.

Bluffmaster! is based on the Argentine movie Nine Queens, which was also remade in America as Criminal. Additionally, Bluffmaster! shares similarities with Hollywood films like The Game and Matchstick Men. All of these movies directly or indirectly supply the template for Bluffmaster!. Meticulous continuity is the only way to make such a complex story work, and it does so in Sippy’s sophomore directorial effort.

The acting is uniformly good. Bachchan brings charm to a character who is initially a selfish crook. Irani is stellar as an elder who sees potential in Roy and has great affection for him. Chopra and Deshmukh are solid as the skeptic and the sidekick, respectively.

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Retro Review: Black (2005)

3.5 Stars (out of 4)

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Most Americans are familiar with the story of Helen Keller, a blind and deaf girl who learned to communicate through the guidance of her teacher, Anne Sullivan. The play written about Keller & Sullivan, The Miracle Worker, is required reading in many middle schools. The play inspired filmmaker Sanjay Leela Bhansali to create the movie Black.

Black‘s heroine is Michelle McNally (played as a child by Ayesha Kapoor, and as an adult by Rani Mukerji), a girl robbed of her sight and hearing by an illness at a young age. The first half of the movie tacks closely to Keller’s life story. By age eight, Michelle has developed into a wild, almost feral child due to her inability to communicate. Her parents, equally frustrated by being unable to reach their daughter, are on the verge of sending Michelle to an asylum to prevent her from accidentally harming her baby sister, Sarah.

As a last resort, the McNally’s hire eccentric teacher Debraj Sahai (Amitabh Bachchan) to tutor Michelle. Early in the movie, Bachchan’s performance is almost too eccentric to be believable, as Debraj uses unconventional methods to reach out to Michelle.

Debraj is eventually able to teach Michelle the connection between words and objects, and she’s able to finally communicate with her family through sign language. She’s accepted into a university, and Debraj helps her to continue her studies and live on her own. This is where the story diverts from Keller’s biography and develops its own identity.

Michelle must deal with typical adult challenges in addition to her handicaps. She has a strained relationship with Sarah (Nandana Sen), who’s tired of living in her older sister’s shadow. When Sarah is finally able to command her parents’ undivided attention at her engagement dinner, she gives an uncomfortably honest toast, confessing to cruel acts she committed against Michelle.

Sarah’s engagement provokes confusing feelings in Michelle. She’s curious about romance, but the only man she knows is Debraj, who’s as much a father figure to her as he is a friend.

Of course, Michelle’s special needs make university a challenge. She’s too slow when typing answers to exam questions on a Braille typewriter, and she needs Debraj to translate lectures into sign language. Even though a cane increases her mobility and independence, she’s still unable to navigate the campus by herself. This puts her in grave danger as Debraj begins to manifest the signs of Alzheimer’s disease.

As inspirational as the first half of Black is, it’s most compelling to watch Michelle develop into a fully formed person. Keller herself went had an extraordinary life as an activist, in addition to introducing the Akita breed of dog to the United States. Mukerji’s performance is so captivating that it’s easy to forget that she doesn’t deliver any lines of dialog.

Bachchan is similarly spellbinding as Debraj confronts the emotional and ethical issues of tutoring a young woman, as opposed to a little girl. He struggles with a sudden decline in mental function that changes his relationship with Michelle. As he once reached out to her, she is forced to find a way to connect with him.

Besides the two leads, Black features a terrific supporting cast. Sen walks a fine line, showing the despair behind Sarah’s bratty behavior. And Shernaz Patel is wonderful as Michelle’s troubled mother, Catherine. She’s in an impossible situation, trying to protect Michelle even though it exacerbates the girl’s problems while trying not to overlook her other daughter. Catherine is heroic in her own right for not sending Michelle away and, in effect, covering her own eyes and ears to her child’s plight.

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Retro Review: The Blue Umbrella (2005)

3 Stars (out of 4)

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I always feel like I’m missing something when I watch Vishal Bhardwaj’s movies. Much of that is due to the fact that I have to rely upon English subtitles that are often poorly translated. In Omkara, the subtitles were so sanitized as to obscure the meaning of conversations made up of crass colloquialisms. In Kaminey, the characters’ speech impediments caused malaprops that surely meant more in the original language than when they were translated into English.

But there’s something else about the way Bhardwaj tells his stories that leaves me a bit muddled. He jumps right into the story, without much explanation of who the characters are or what their relationships are to one another (again, it could be a language issue). While identities and relationships are usually sorted out over time, it adds a feeling of confusion early in the movie: something that might be acceptable in a mystery film, but Bhardwaj doesn’t make mysteries.

I had the same feeling while watching The Blue Umbrella, based on a novella by Ruskin Bond. I’m sure everything was clear if you’d already read the book, but that shouldn’t be a prerequisite for enjoying a movie.

The protagonist is Biniya (Shreya Sharma), a precocious girl who lives in a picturesque mountain village. The town is a stopping point for tourists on their way through the mountains. One day, Biniya meets a group of tourists and trades her lucky necklace for a beautiful, blue Japanese-style umbrella. The blue umbrella stands out among the alpine greenery, and Biniya and her umbrella become the town’s main attraction. Tourists pose for photos with her when they stop at the local snack shop, run by an old man named Nandu (Pankaj Kapoor).

Nandu covets Biniya’s blue umbrella, as do several other adults in town. He tries to trick and bribe her into giving him the umbrella, but she isn’t interested. When the umbrella is stolen one night, Nandu is Bindiya’s prime suspect.

At her request, the cops raid Nandu’s shop, but the umbrella’s not there. Humiliated, Nandu vows to buy his own umbrella. A short while later, Nandu receives a delivery: an umbrella exactly like Biniya’s, only red. He becomes the de facto mayor of the village, though heart-broken Biniya still harbors suspicions about him.

The confusion creeps into the story around the time when the umbrella is stolen. A number of the adults shown as potential suspects have so little screen time until that point that I wasn’t sure who they were. They seem like unnecessary red herrings. The question isn’t whether Nandu stole the umbrella (it’s obvious he did) but whether Biniya can prove it.

Some of the relationships between characters are also initially unclear. Biniya lives with her mother and a man who I thought was her dad; turns out he’s her older brother. Nandu has a young assistant who is, apparently, not his son. None of these are huge problems, but they were distracting. A few lines of dialog could’ve cleared things up without disrupting the narrative flow.

The natural scenery of the village is fantastic, and Bhardwaj occasionally filters the light to give the town a surreal glow. Winter sets in after the umbrella is stolen, and the snow has an unreal blue tint, echoing Biniya’s sadness. There’s a brief, early action scene in which Biniya uses her umbrella to fend off a snake, presented as a comic book come to life.

Overall, the movie succeeds because the story is so charming, as is the girl who plays Biniya. It’s a wonderful parable about the difference between justice and vengeance, as well as the liberating power of forgiveness.

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