Movie Reviews, Commentary & More

Artistic Quantification

Cinema critics, many of them, use a rating system. Ratings range from letter grades, through star ratings to a simple 'thumbs up' or 'thumbs down'. Cinema, at it's best is a powerful art and at it's worst an exercise in patience cultivation. In my perspective, any cinema falls within that range. But to place a cinema in that range based on stars or grades is not something a critic may particularly enjoy.

I saw 'Saving Private Ryan' yesterday, probably for the 11th time. It was as gripping and devastating as much as it impacted me the first time. It hasn't lost it's punch. To me that is a great movie. Giving it an A+ or ****/**** and writing a paragraph doesn't do justice to the great piece of art it is. But most of the mainstream audience seem to be interested in it. Sites like rottentomatoes thrive on this quantification phenomenon. Only movie lovers will read all the words in the full-page review, whereas the browser, whose memory retention is two odd hours (just enough time to remember the details of the movie and to forget about it when he's out of the theatre) needs a concrete output, where the movie sits for an exam conducted the critics and they all evaluate it for the browser.

I don't think many thinking critics respect their rating system. They do it because their editor wants to present a one-line opinion to their browser, followed by that detailed analysis, if you're really into it, and the critics do it as a part of their job. For a freelancer like me, rating is an undesirable and unwanted element of cinema reviewing. I have no editor to report to. To me, it is the equivalent of assigning a number to a Picasso's painting (that is, if I knew how to appreciate painting). You look at it, absorb it, and then talk to your friend or write about how wonderful or imaginative or inventive or pathetic the painting is. There is no point in telling your friend "I would give it a 6 out of 10. That's how much it's worth."

'Mangal Pandey - The Rising' - Thoughts

I'm not well versed in Hindi, but at the same time I'm not unfamiliar with the language. I didn't understand somewhere between 30% and 40% of the dialogues and since understanding the movie in every basic cinema sense is a must for reviewing, I refrain from writing a full-fledged review.

The first struggle against the British Raj, as our history books tell us, is the sepoy mutiny in 1857. Mangal Pandey, a brahmin sepoy working for the Raj, refused to use the cartridges that were greased with cow and pig fat. I guess this is pretty much what the books tell us. I suppose there aren't many details that are documented about Mangal Pandey's life. Bollywood has concocted a love, friendship, song, dance cocktail around the character and glorified him.

Let me simply ramble. Mangal Pandey, enjoys a friendly relationship with William Gordon, a captain in the Raj. Heera is a prostitute. Jwala is a widow saved by Gordon when she was about to be sati'd. These are the primary characters. A lot of time is spent in developing the friendship between Mangal and Gordon. But it is all semi-baked and I wished someone would kill one of these two and end the friendship. Love is hinted between Mangal and Heera at the beginning, and it comes to a cloying Bollywood end when they marry symbolically before the credits roll. The saving grace of all the relationships is the relationship between Gordon and Jwala, which is ahead of it's time and portrayed admirably.

There were a few things I enjoyed, but they're very personal in taste: I've developed a liking for unglamorous photography. The camera is very simple and just lets us interpret the events. The songs are welcome breaks (though the rerecording isn't). Acting by Rani Mukherji (Heera) and Amisha Patel (Jwala) is very subtle and beautiful. They didn't go over the board. There are moments of good work by Aamir Khan (Mangal), but considering the whole span of the movie, I think he just stayed faithful to the screenplay which is absurd, and that's probably why he doesn't impress.

A few personal distastes: I've always disliked a wave like energy flow of the screenplay. The first two-thirds of the movie is full of such waves. Especially before the arrival of songs: the scenes preceding the songs had a totally different tone and mood than the tone and mood of the song. That leaves me underprepared to accept the song. Veterans like Mani Ratnam are masters in slipping the song into the screenplay - they make necessary leeway for the audience to glide into the dreamy world of songs. I'm not comfortable with the idea of a Hollywood actor in an Indian movie just to elevate the visibility of the movie. Toby Stephens (Gordon) is only a B grade actor. And he really sucks in this movie, probably because of his discomfiture with the Bollywood production environment.

'Mangal Pandey - The Rising', has the elements of a masala movie and also has the talent pool. Unfortunately, the makers took themselves seriously and aspired to produce an epic. The movie has a friendship element, a romantic plot, songs, fights and patriotic fervour slowly gaining momentum. If the execution had been good remaining faithful to the central theme of mutiny, the movie could have come close to epic proportions. But, it miserably fails in execution. There is no heart. The screenplay seems to meander here and there at times. Supporting cast acting is sub level. Crowd control is poor. The friendship between the leads is dumbed down. Editor seems to have slept during his job. Rahman is always present in the background and that's really irritating. I am going to stop.

I think this is Aamir's second shot at Oscar. It is easy to appease the Oscar's foreign language academy members if they can connect with the theme. One of the reasons Lagaan (one of the best sports movies I've seen) failed to win the Oscar was because they don't understand cricket, which is the heart of the movie. This time, he has chosen a similar era (19th century), same enemy (the British), but a theme the foreigners can connect with (struggle for freedom), and unfortunately a mediocre screenwriter* (Farrukh Dhondy) and director* (Ketan Mehta).

I don't hate this movie. But, even worse, I simply don't care for the movie. I remember movies that I hated. But this one would simply fade into oblivion.

* I haven't seen any of Ketan Mehta's and Farrukh Dhondy's other movies. I actually mean mediocre direction and screenplay.