Tag Archives: Neeraj Kabi

Movie Review: Viceroy’s House (2017)

2 Stars (out of 4)

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Viceroy’s House isn’t wholly successful, but maybe trying to depict the fraught months leading up to India’s Partition in a movie less than two hours long was never a venture that could succeed.

The biggest hurdle director Gurinder Chadha and her screenwriter husband Paul Mayeda Berges set for themselves is in trying to portray events in a way that is, if not objective, then at least fair. Most of the key players — fictional and historical — are shown as having good intentions and understandable motivations (except for the Muslims who work for the viceroy, who all agitate for an independent Pakistan). Yet knowing now of the refugee crisis that immediately followed Partition and the ongoing conflict between India and Pakistan, is the focus on good intentions even desirable?

Viceroy’s House begins with the installation of Lord Louis Mountbatten (Hugh Bonneville) as the last viceroy, tasked with turning over the subcontinent to Indian rule. Even with independence on the horizon, Mountbatten maintains his aristocratic lifestyle, timing his servants to make sure they can dress him quickly enough for his satisfaction.

Mountbatten’s wife, Edwina (Gillian Anderson), and their teenage daughter Pamela (Lily Travers), are more aware of the value of softening the image of the British as rulers in favor of something more democratic. Edwina invites Indian guests to parties at the estate, asking the all-Indian kitchen staff to adjust the menu to cater to local tastes. When the sous chef complains in Hindi that all of his training is in English-style cooking, the Lady’s assistant Aalia (Huma Qureshi) translates his comments as polite assent to the request. It’s as though the movie itself doesn’t want its British characters to have to deal with the mess that their predecessors left, and as if the present viceroy’s family’s good intentions have wiped the slate clean.

In an effort to put the larger events in a more personal context, Viceroy’s House features a love story between Aalia and Jeet (Manish Dayal), one of Lord Mountbatten’s grooms. They love each other, but he is Hindu and she is Muslim, in addition to being betrothed to a nice man, Asif (Arunoday Singh), as fulfillment of her mother’s dying wish. Jeet wants Aalia to follow her heart, but she has not only Asif’s feelings to consider but the well-being of her blind father (played by Om Puri). Would they really be safe in a Hindu-majority India? Jeet’s naive faith in both a united India and in the power of love to conquer all lead him to dismiss Aalia’s concerns as a lack of courage.

Casting Hugh Bonneville as an aristocrat invites comparisons to his role as the Earl of Grantham in Downton Abbey. Where the two stories differ is in their ability to entwine the lives of characters of different classes, thus providing a more complete picture of society at the time. Downton Abbey did so successfully through subplots like Lady Sybil helping Gwen the maid find a job as a secretary.

In Viceroy’s House, the Mountbatten’s lack such intimate connections to their staff. The wealthy Brits have ideas as to what might be troubling their servants, but they don’t know details. The whole feel of the film would have changed with better integration between the class-specific plots, such as Pamela learning of Aalia’s romantic problems and using her position to find a way for Aalia and Jeet to be together.

Where Viceroy’s House does succeed is showing the scope of the problems complicating the British departure from India. There are no easy solutions, and blood was already being shed when Mountbatten arrived. However, asking the audience to feel bad for Mountbatten — a representative of a white, foreign power that had been exploiting India for centuries — just because he personally didn’t create the problems he was asked to solve is a bit much.

The accomplished cast — which also includes Michael Gambon, Darshan Jariwala, Denzil Smith, and Neeraj Kabi — give laudable performances all around. Huma Qureshi is charming, and Arunoday Singh stands out in his few scenes. If the two of them can’t find quality parts in Bollywood, come to Hollywood, please!

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Movie Review: Talvar (2015)

Talvar4 Stars (out of 4)

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*Author’s note: Though this film is based on a true story, I reviewed the film as a stand-alone piece of art, not as a referendum on the 2008 Noida double murder case.

A candlelight vigil is held following a teenage girl’s murder, protesters holding signs demanding justice for the victim. Director Meghna Gulzar and writer Vishal Bhardwaj highlight the subjective natures of truth and justice in the hypnotic mystery Talvar (international title: “Guilty“).

The girl is 14-year-old Shruti Tandon (Ayesha Parveen), found dead in her bedroom by her parents, who apparently slept through their daughter’s murder. Shruti’s father, Ramesh (Neeraj Kabi), and mother, Nutan (Konkona Sen Sharma), fall under suspicion after the original suspect — a servant named Khempal — is found murdered on the roof of their apartment building.

The initial police investigation is a calamity. Neighbors and detectives wander obliviously through the family’s apartment, contaminating the crime scene. Officers neglect to preserve crucial evidence because they are busy taking photos of each other next to the body on the roof.

With the most obvious suspect exonerated by virtue of his being dead, the police invent outlandish theories to establish the guilt of the parents. They rely heavily on the testimony of Ramesh’s employee, Kanhaiya (Sumit Gulati), who has a grudge against his boss.

At the press conference announcing formal charges against the Tandons, the police chief mispronounces Shruti’s name and assassinates her character. The chief accuses Ramesh of wife-swapping, adding, “He is as characterless as his daughter was.” Embarrassed by the conduct of the police, the government turns the case over to the Central Department of Investigation (CDI), handing the reins to officer Ashwin Kumar (Irrfan Khan).

As new theories of the crime are introduced, Gulzar reenacts each version as though it were true. Ramesh and Nutan are shown as either savvy killers or grief-stricken parents, depending on who is telling the tale.

The technique is integrated seamlessly into the narrative of the investigation, which changes hands three times. That means that Shruti’s death is shown over and over again, in gory detail. Even though the investigation is the focus of the story, the audience is never allowed to forget the two deaths that started it.

The point of Talvar is not so much to establish the truth of what happened — a fact made extraordinarily difficult thanks to the botched initial investigation — but the multiple ways that evidence can be interpreted. The different conclusions reached by the police, Ashwin, and his successor Paul (Atul Kumar), reveal as much about the investigators as they do about the crime itself.

Gulzar maintains the gravity of the story with sparing use of background music (also written by Bhardwaj). Uncomfortable interrogations are made even more uncomfortable without the distraction of a musical score. Gulzar also coaxes great performances from her cast, especially Kabi, Sharma, and Gulati, who have to act in the present day storyline as well as the reenactments of the murder.

Irrfan Khan is amazing, with Ashwin standing in for the audience as the objective observer. Well, as objective as Ashwin can be whilst being pressured into a divorce by his wife, Reemu (Tabu). The divorce subplot again highlights that the participants are human beings, not crime-solving robots. Same for the detail about Paul bringing his son with him to the crime scene because he can’t find a babysitter.

Talvar is an engrossing police procedural full of humanity. It’s both a joy and a nightmare to watch, knowing that the story is based on a real incident. Gulzar’s direction is tense, but never exploitative. This is a terrific film.

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Movie Review: Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! (2015)

Detective_Byomkesh_Bakshy_poster4 Stars (out of 4)

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Reviewer’s note: The character of Byomkesh Bakshy (originally spelled “Bakshi”) is a creation of Bengali author Sharadindu Bandhopadhyay, who wrote thirty-two stories about the detective between 1932 and 1970. I have never read any of Bandhopadhyay’s stories, so this review will not compare the original literary detective to Banerjee’s updated film version. I am treating Banerjee’s detective as a completely separate entity.

Director Dibakar Banerjee’s Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! is a visually stunning mystery that’s worth watching for its sumptuous style alone — though it also has much more going for it.

Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! opens with a brutal drug deal gone bad, before shifting forward in time to Calcutta, 1943. Byomkesh (Sushant Singh Rajput) is an unassuming young man with a reputation for solving mysteries. He’s quick to correct anyone who calls him a detective; he just pursues the truth.

A bespectacled young man, Ajit (Anand Tiwari), asks Byomkesh for help finding his missing father, but Byomkesh is dismissive. The man was most likely murdered for being mixed up in something shady or ran off with a woman, Byomkesh tells Ajit, who punches him before storming out.

When Byomkesh’s girlfriend confesses that she’s marrying a man with better job prospects, he apologizes to Ajit and takes on the case. Clues lead Byomkesh to a boarding house in another part of Calcutta, run by clever Dr. Guha (Neeraj Kabi). The search for clues takes a dangerous turn when Byomkesh finds a connection between Ajit’s missing father an a powerful politician.

The backdrop to Byomkesh’s investigation is a city on edge due to repeated bombings of strategic British targets by the Japanese. My Midwestern American primary education on World War II included no references to the effects of the war on British-controlled India, so I found the the film’s setting fascinating. As soon as the air raid sirens sounded during Byomkesh’s first night in the boarding house, I was hooked.

Banerjee takes the time and place into consideration in his shots. Shadows pervade, since overhead interior lights and bright streetlamps wouldn’t have been common during that era, and particularly not during wartime. The brightest shots in the film take place on the set of a movie starring Anguri Devi (Swastika Mukherjee, who looks every bit the bombshell).

The sound design of the film is equally as effective as the lighting. Urban hubbub stands in for a background score, and the specter of the air raid siren looms. When Byomkesh tentatively approaches a dormant furnace during his investigation, a ghostly mechanical thrum accompanies his steps.

When Banerjee does employ music with lyrics, the songs have a contemporary feel, be it Indian music or thrash metal. The juxtaposition of the period visuals with modern music heightens the emotional impact. Banerjee isn’t going for total authenticity. His representation of Calcutta is highly stylized, and the contemporary music suits it.

The music also makes the film’s graphic violence feel more appropriate. While there isn’t a lot of violence, that which exists is bloody and brutally administered. It’s shocking, and perhaps not for the faint of heart (and it’s especially inappropriate for children).

Yet what also makes it appropriate is Byomkesh’s reaction to this violence. He abhors it and feels responsible for those harmed even indirectly by his investigation. It’s one aspect of Byomkesh’s personality that makes him such a great character. He’s an ordinary guy in a pop culture era when trend demands that Western movie and TV detectives be quirky or socially maladroit. His only quirk is that he can’t let go of a case until he discovers the truth, even when it puts his life in danger.

Rajput is terrific, giving an understated performance that blends with the story rather than drawing attention to itself. During the course of the film, Byomkesh and Ajit develop a nice working friendship, and Tiwari matches Rajput’s style well.

Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! is ripe for a sequel, and it hope it gets several. A great lead character and a stunningly rendered Calcutta make Bakshy’s world one I want to revisit over and over again.

Links

  • Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! at Wikipedia
  • Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! at IMDb

Movie Review: Ship of Theseus (2012)

Ship_of_Theseus3 Stars (out of 4)

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In Ship of Theseus, writer-director Anand Gandhi explores what distinguishes us as individuals through three vignettes about organ donation. It’s a thought-provoking piece of work that periodically veers into self-indulgence.

The film begins with a written description of Theseus’ paradox. If one were to replace every component of a ship, would the end product still be the same ship? Gandhi asks that question of the human body: how many parts can be replaced and still be considered the same person?

That conundrum is explored the most directly in the first vignette, about a blind photographer. Aliya (Aida El-Kashef) took up photography after losing her eyesight, and she relies upon her boyfriend, Vinay (Faraz Khan) to describe to her the pictures she takes. A cornea transplant restores her sight but alters her instincts as a photographer, to Aliya’s detriment.

The most interesting aspect of Aliya’s story is the way Gandhi uses sound to tell it. Before the surgery, Aliya listens to the noises on the street to alert her to potential subjects. Her camera’s digital voice tells her the aperture size, and her computer’s voice helps her navigate her editing software.

After her surgery, the digital voices disappear. On the street, the cacophony surrounding Aliya hampers her creative sight instead of enhancing it. Credit to sound designer Gábor ifj. Erdélyi for making the same settings feel so different, even though nothing has changed visually for the audience.

Ship of Theseus‘ biggest shortcomings are most apparent in Aliya’s story. There’s an excess of dialogue in the movie, most of it consisting of characters philosophizing about the meaning of life. The pseudo-intellectual dialogue doesn’t sound realistic, and characters aren’t given distinct voices. Aliya talks the same as Vinay, who talks the same as Charvaka (Vinay Shukla) from the second vignette.

Charvaka is a legal apprentice working on an animal rights case on behalf of a monk, Maitreya (Neeraj Kabi). When Maitreya is diagnosed with cirrhosis, the monk must decide whether to have a liver transplant, even thought it would require him to violate his principles by using medicines tested on animals.

The progression of Maitreya’s disease is horrifying and visceral, and Kabi’s physical transformation is startling. Yet it’s most difficult to watch the suffering monk endure Charvaka’s myopic, self-assured musings, apparently generated without an attempt to understand Maitreya’s point of view.

The final vignette concerns a young stockbroker, Navin (Sohum Shah), whose own kidney transplant alerts him to the practice of illegal organ trading. Navin’s attempt to recover the stolen kidney of an impoverished bricklayer (Yashwant Wasnik) shakes him out of his shallow, materialistic lifestyle.

Navin’s story is the most conventional and is the most entertaining to watch (perhaps because of that conventional structure). Shah’s performance is thoughtful, as Navin attempts to discover answers, begrudgingly realizing that his way is not the only way.

However, Navin’s story highlights Ship of Theseus‘ need of editing. Scenes throughout the movie stretch on without providing insight into characters or plot. There’s far too much time devoted to Navin and his friend trying to park their car in a narrow lane as they search for the bricklayer, and even more time wasted as they are repeatedly sent in the wrong direction looking for the man’s house. The poor state of the neighborhood and Navin’s outsider status within it could’ve been established in half the time.

Even the film’s final shots seem less like essential story elements than a chance for Gandhi to show off some neat footage he had on hand. It’s easy to see where Ship of Theseus is going, and much of the ride is quite enjoyable. It just needed to take a more efficient route to get there.

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