Movie Reviews, Commentary & More

Maniratnam's Gurubhai's Vs Mumbai's Dhirubhai

A cursory glance at this wikipedia page about Dhirubhai Ambani will establish, without a doubt, who is the framework of Maniratnam's 'Guru'. Both, the reel Gurukant and the real Dhirajlal were born in rural Gujarat to a school teacher. In their teen years, they both abandoned school education and set out to middle-east looking to make money. They both worked for a distributor for Shell products. They both placed huge orders for the country's currency which is a valuable metal. Both are risk-takers who came to Mumbai (Bombay, then) with a vision of building a business empire. While Guru starts his textile business 'Shakti', it's (needless to say) 'Vimal' for Dhiru. They invite the public to take a share of the business (IPO). Heck, the Mercedes car Gurukant buys is the same model which Dhirubhai owned. Both face problems with a leading newspaper - and then resort to ugly means. Both held share-holders meetings in stadiums. Both diversified their business into petroleum and other sectors. Both were questioned by a commission set up by the central government for their unethical business practices. They both suffer a stroke, on the right side. Both make a come back, not only physically, but business wise too.

Having done such a neat job of transforming Dhirubhai's life story, Maniratnam has the temerity to put on a card that reads something like "All character in this movie are imaginary... any similarity to anyone living or dead is purely coincidental...". Wow, that must be really really some coincidence. I frankly don't know what are the hurdles in making a true biopicture. I mean, if Scorsese can make 'Aviator', a film based on Howard Hughes, why not an Indian director make a movie on an Indian business tycoon? I'm sure Mukesh and Anil would have diluted the script if there was a need to obtain permission from them, but isn't there any other means for the producers to really claim that the movie is actually a biopic of Dhirubhai? Somehow, to read that disclaimer and then count the similarities between Guru and Dhiru, and then lose the count because it's such a big integer, is a let down.

This isn't the first time Maniratnam does such a thing. His 'Iruvar', a movie about the friendship, rise and fallout of two political leaders who shaped Tamil Nadu - Karunanidhi & M.G.R, also had a similar disclaimer. After all, Karunanidhi praised Prakash Raj for the role he played in a public stage - so, what exactly would have been the issue if Mani had openly admitted that it wasn't his imagination? Another famous production is his 'Nayagan', a story not-so-loosely based on Varadaraja Mudaliar. I read somewhere that 'Anjali' was also inspired. We have our share of biopictures - 'Gandhi' by Attenborough, 'Bose' by Shyam Benegal, 'Ambedkar' by Jabbar Patel, 'Bharathi' by Gnana Rajasekaran.... is there a body where the producers will have to obtain permission before they can shoot movies based on real life personalities? Heck, Kamal's 'Hey Ram' played with M.K.Gandhi.

One minor reason I could think of for Maniratnam to go with that disclaimer could be because of commercial exploits - like songs and romantic affairs. If it had been announced as a movie based on facts, Mani wouldn't have a free hand to play with songs and he would lose half the audience who come to see Aishwarya Rai scantily dressed, drenched in rain dancing for a Rahman tune. Worse, the problem is compounded when you show her as a girl who was ready to elope with another man - Mukesh & Anil would give Mani the stick, huh! But these are the reasons I come up with, while Mani vehemently rejects in his interviews that his movie has nothing to do with Dhiru - which just makes my head move sideways in part anger and part dejection: one of the few film talents in India remains gutless when it comes to his inspirations. Maniratnam has already established himself, and that too very firmly. He can command top stars to work for him at a rate he sets. He must have enough money - in fact, he should have got his entire expenditure for 'Guru' in the first week earning all over the world and with the music sales. Before he is too old to make movies, I'd like to see from him a very open, honest and brutally harsh movie about a real life personality without that disclaimer. That would be a great salute to his fans.

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World Trade Center - One Minute Review

A bunch of Port Authority police officers hurry to the twin towers site as soon as they hear of the crash. As the tower tumbles, many of these officials are crushed to death and a few of them remain trapped. Of those who hold on are John & Will. The editor cuts between the rescue efforts, which are in full swing, the conversations between John & Will and what's happening between their families. In one of the scenes an officer who is relatively unharmed, deep inside the rubble, comes upto help Will whose legs are crushed under a block of concrete. At that moment, the building crashes further, targeting that officer, who gets hurt very badly. Unable to bear the pain, he kills himself with his gun. After a while, John and Will continue to talk about their families and laugh as if they were in a coffee shop. I'm sure the flow of such scenes must have sounded matter-of-factly and powerful on the paper. But the execution lacks depth, and does not hold the attention of the audience.

Nicolas Cage and Michael Pena don the role of John & Will respectively. Maria Bello as John's wife delivers a powerful peformance. She wonderfully expresses her anxities about the outcome of her husband's fate and her teenage son who just wants to be there. The gifted director Oliver Stone does something new with the World Trade Center - he refuses to use his gifts as a director. It's surprising to see such a product from someone who delivered 'Platoon' and 'Born on the Fourth of July'. There is no emotional punch in the narration - may be it's because of the sentiments associated with 9/11, the director strictly refuses to dramatize the events. But, as a movie, the pace of the plot is pedestrian and for about an hour (of the middle segment) it's also the audience who feel trapped along with those officers.

Maniratnam's Guru - Movie Review

Maniratnam (also credited as Mani Ratnam) broke into the film scene like a wonderboy and promised milk and honey for audience with an appreciable IQ. People who've stopped visiting theatres playing Indian cinemas citing quality as an example thought again. People who had an eye for photography, an ear for audiography and a sense for direction had reasons to rejoice. When formula movies were the order of the day, he framed his own equations. Lesser directors openly copied him; and guess what - even the copies made money. As the audience evolve, it is expected that the directors too evolve and keep surprising, shocking, treating and/or challenging the audience. Maniratnam, in his last three movies, has refused to hone or reinvent his skills. As a result, we get a product that we have come to expect from Mani, meaning the equations he framed haven't changed. And this time, meeting expectations is mildly disappointing.

Now, the movie. Guru is about Gurukant Desai, an ambitious man. He is the kind of man who would plan to conquer the world if you given him enough time and resources. Born in a middle-class family in rural Gujarat, he has plans that makes his school headmaster father frown. Not the brightest bulb in the class, he discontinues his education to go to Turkey where he works for Shell. Though he steadily ascends the corporate ladder, he comes back home where he wants to be his own boss. He marries his friend's sister Sujatha so that he can use the dowry as his capital. Soon he moves to Mumbai, the ever-happening place where he reaches pinnacles of materialism while steadily slipping in his ethics and morals.

His friend of previous generation and a well-wisher, Manikdas Gupta finds Guru's means of acquiring power and money abominable. Being the editor of a newspaper, he hires a young journalist - Shyam Saxena, to expose Guru. This results in a clash that reflects on the emotional proximity of the two families. But what's interesting is that Sujatha, who is portrayed as a woman of resolve is not shown to condemn Guru's powerplay. So, did she silently accede to the illegal means he resorted? Maniratnam doesn't even open up that question. Interestingly, when Guru is prosecuted, she says that she is willing to go to jail with him as she is his fifty percent, be it life or business.

First, the +ves: I seriously doubt if Abhishek Bachchan will deliver a better performance than this one in his life. He may act for another forty years, but my hunch is that he will always be remembered as Guru Bhai. He has a smile that's both boyish and manly at the same time. His charisma, though not infectious, is good enough to justify his step-out, march-forward attitude. If there is anybody who claims to rival him in the acting category, it is Mithun Charkavarty. He easily surpasses Abhishek in a few scenes and is very solid through out. He should be given two trophies in the supporting category - that's how strong his performance is. Aishwarya plays a subdued part very well.

Samir Chanda and Sabu Cyril recreate the streets, houses, cars, switchboards and other paraphernalia or 60's and 70's creditably. Rahman continues to sizzle us with songs, though not all of them get their screentime, which in quite unfair. Except for Iruvar, all of his projects with Maniratnam has a background score that doesn't stand up to the movie. His background pieces are peppy, moody, melliflous, tappable... but they don't have a heart. Still, they serve the narration and Rahman deserves a respectable chunk of Guru's success. Sreekar Prasad, another long-time collaborator of Maniratnam does an impressive job. It's never easy to edit biopictures - they span decades and Prasad makes sure that the narration isn't fractured.

On to the -ves: Screenplay. To be precise, the placement and the picturization of songs. We begin with a song, and soon we have another one, just like in Alaipayuthey. Mallika Sherawat belly dances for 'Mayya Mayya'. I wrote the following in my piece on the cast for the movie:
For a director of Maniratnam's stature, he can do away with item numbers which feature beautiful female forms in meagre clothes. Is that really necessary when you have a strong storyline?

Mani thinks otherwise. Perfect shots of her cleavages for about three minutes. Yeah, that's very important for the rest of the story!! I wrote the following in my piece on the songs:
Though my music video exposure is limited, I'm tempted to say something stupendous like Maniratnam must be one of the five best music video directors in business today. I find Mani extremely tasteful when it comes to giving visual meanings to songs.

May be it's time for me to take it back. What happened to the Mani who gave us 'Thoongadha vizhigal' on a shoe-string budget with brilliant lighting. What happened to the Mani who gave us 'Chinna thayival' who touched us with mesmerizing directorial touches. And whatever happened to the youthful, zesty Mani who shot 'Fanaa' in his fifties. Hmmm. And then I feared this:
My guess is that a lesser director would have used 'Barso Re' to introduce the Aishwarya Rai character to the audience - soaked in rain and enjoying nature with a merry tune. I hope Maniratnam disappoints me.

What a shock to see Aishwarya introduced this way. How cliched the technique is? But the shock really is Mani resorting to a cliche which even debutantes are thinking as old-fashioned.

The second let down is also credited to Maniratnam, this time for his direction. The love-blossoming between Sujatha (Aishwarya Rai) and Guru (Abhishek Bachchan) is very reminiscent of his earlier movies. In a scene, Guru drags Sujatha from a vegetable market, runs across the street, climbs up the stairs and enter their home. I was able to predict the flow of the scene right from the first moment. His directorial touches have become by-the-numbers. The tone & execution of the rise of Guru as a business tycoon had tinges of Nayagan and Godfather II. There is no blatant plaigiarism here and may be he drew heavy inspiration. But as the story unfolded, I found it all familiar, somewhere deep inside me. I'm sure a master story teller would have avoided that feeling in me.

With so many close-ups and hand-held jerky shots, I don't know what was running through Rajiv Menon's mind. May be he wanted us to read Guru's mind through all those close-ups, but I just found it a little distracting. And that not-so-slow motion, which leaves the images blurred when the camera moves during the final court scene didn't go down well with me. When the dialogues and acting are powerful, why resort to such unnecessary gimmicks? Then comes the romantic subplot between Shyam (Madhavan) and Meenu (Vidya Balan). When these two characters are inadequately developed, did we need a close-up lip-lock scene between them? It seems like another one of those item scenes, just to pull in the first rows for a repeated viewing.

I recommend this movie, and it's a strong recommendation if you haven't been introduced to Maniratnam before. If you're like me, seen almost all of his movies at least twice, and that too intensely, you may find a lot of parallels here in the way characters are developed and the way the screenplay proceeds. I'll quote a part of a review from IMDb:
In a world of constant innovations, creativity and changes, in a generation where you see movies like "Pi" and "The Fountain" being made by the same director, where there is no limit to ideas galore., I do not differentiate between Mani Ratnam and Karan Johar if what they do at the end of the day - is the same old time tested 'safe bet' 'multi star' formula. Good cinema is dying in the hands of stars and entertainment value. Mani Ratnam is dead, a fan for over 15 yrs has just resigned.

I haven't resigned yet. Indian cinema industry has always been severly short of intelligent directors. With an industry churning out close to a thousand movies every year, and that too which generates a handful of super hits, it's saying something about the state of the Indian movies in general and the taste of the mass in particular. With age catching up, I don't know if Mani's happy to be one of those 'one of those' directors who don't strive for creative intelligence. If Maniratnam does not take his ardent fans into consideration while beginning his next project and continues to be a cookie-cutter, I may soon have to resign.

P.S: Gurubhai rhymes with Dhirubhai, right? More on that in my next post.

Update: Here's the post on Guru Vs Dhiru.

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Filler Post

  • You can expect the review of Maniratnam's 'Guru' by Tuesday morning IST. Saw the teaser yesterday, looks promising.
  • I submit some of my entries to a cinema carnival hosted by Scott Nehring, whose site you can find in the links section. You can find the latest entry here.
  • A reader said that he finds some of my reviews too long. He didn't say they were boring (oh.. what courtesy!!). I'm not going to make any conscious efforts to cut down the length of my reviews. I just let my thoughts run and stop writing when they're all put on webpage. As and when I evolve, I hope I'll know which point to include and which one's better left out.
  • I'm hoping to post the review of 'World Trade Center' in the next couple of days. It will be a relatively shorter review, because it didn't touch me at deeper levels.
  • Saw 'Proposition', a good movie. Wonderful performance by Ray Winstone.


Dear pea-brained music directors,
I understand that the producers & directors don't have any taste for music and most of the audience treat the songs as bathroom breaks. You have my sympathy. But, you all came up with this inter-planetary cool idea to take an old hit song that would make the audience go ooh-aah and overwrite it with your own tappanguthu track and add some echo or increase the reverb time or do some such crap. Before anybody spanks you, let me put it in plain words: it's a very very pukesome idea. If I had an option, I'm better off listening to that oldie, because it has a heart. Your version is supremely painful. So. Please. Stop. It. And no, please don't ever consider ripping off thalaivar's song, even if it's going to be played by his own sullan-in-law.

Children of Heaven - Movie Review

Simple themes are double-edged swords. If you don't know how to handle them, you cut yourself badly. You need a good grasp of the daily routines in that culture and have a masterly narration so that you don't bore your listener/viewer with such a simple storyline. If somebody asked you what the movie is about, you won't have more than two sentences to summarize. It is usually about something that a man from any part of the world can identify with, like, tracing a bicycle thief, winning a cricket match, meeting an old friend... and they usually have strong undercurrents of universal feelings like love, longing, loss, desperation, faith, etc. Majid Majidi, the writer & director of Children of Heaven knows the art of handling such themes. His vivid eye for details and narrative technique helps the movie sail across safely.

At the outset, this movie is about the lost shoes a seven year old girl, Zahra. Her elder brother Ali takes them to a cobbler, and on his way back he loses them. She asks if the shoes were mended and if it looks pretty. Ali answers that they're pretty, but delays in announcing the truth. Later, when she tells him that he's going to report it to their father, he tells her that both will get beatings as his father doesn't have enough money to buy new shoes until the next month. It's the typical lower middle class family where the parents want to give their best to their children and at the same time live a hand-to-mouth existence. The setting is a poor suburb of Tehran. It's just a one room house and there are three children, with the latest addition to the family only a few months old. Zahra & Ali don't even question when family responsibilities are thrust upon them. They understand their family income level and they are mature enough to not dream of things beyond their father's capabilities.

The siblings come up with a plan to keep their wheels spinning (here, their feet walking): Zahra attends forenoon school and Ali attends afternoon school. Ali gives his shoes to his sister to go with her school uniform. Because of time constraints, she has to run fast as soon as her school is over, to an alley which is usually empty where they can exchange the pair of shoes. There are long shots of Zahra running to that empty passage and, from there, Ali running to his school. These shots repeat. We feel for what these kids go through. What is untold is the sense of prestige these kids have - while they could have decided to change shoes somewhere near her school, which might have been easier for both of them, they decide against it for it would be a matter of honour to let the society keep thinking that their father is rich enough to provide separate shoes for the kids. There is a brilliant sequence where Zahra loses one of the shoes into a current of sewage (because it's big for her and she can't run fast with proper grip). The way she runs after that shoe with one on is funny and tragic at the same time.

Until the last segment of the movie, which revolves around a province-level marathon running race, the screenplay doesn't hint of a calculated movement of the storyline towards a definite end. For the most part of the first half, the action in one scene would lead to the next scene smoothly, that you would have thought there would be no grand finale. Majidi employs a commercial tactic to hook his audience to the climx, but I'm not complaining. The third prize of that marathon race is a pair of shoes and a two-week paid holiday. Ali promises his sister that he will definitely be the third to finish the race. Those long runs which Ali was forced to make from that alley to his school act as unforeseen handy practice sessions. What happens in the race, which I won't reveal, left me happy, scratching my head and exhausted just as Ali. In the touching final scene, Majidi displays his penchant for filling up the screen with meaningful and beautifully perfect visuals - Ali immerses his feet into a water pool in their courtyard. The underwater camera captures multi-coloured fishes picking away his skin tears and sores because of heavy-duty running.

I'll point out two sequences which makes this a high class product. Ali and his father visit a rich neighbourhood in Tehran offering gardening services. When one household lets them in, Ali's father realizes that a young boy in that house wants to play with Ali. In spite of his tiredness due to cycling a long distance in the blazing sun, he encourages Ali to play with that boy while he single-handedly does all the pruning, cutting and cleaning. While his father is working, Ali knows his limits very well and doesn't yearn for the riches that boy doesn't even know he is blessed with. Majidi accomplishes this scene of superior understanding of father-son without any sentimental music or over-the-top techniques to make his audience cry. In another sequence, Zahra finds out her shoes. A little girl attending the same school as hers is wearing them. She teams with Ali and spy on her house. When they learn that that girl belongs to a poorer family, they drop their ideas of knocking their doors and asking for their shoes. Later, we learn that the girl got those shoes through fair means and there is no hoodwink involved.

Amir Hashemian as Ali and Bahare Seddiqui as Zahra are extremely refreshing in the lead roles of this art film. Though they slip up in some scenes, they're believable most of the time. Majid Majidi touches us without any tear-jerking ploy or saccharine dialogues. In all the times when the siblings fight over the lost shoes, Majidi never fails to infuse the love and care between them. There are no villains here. Just ordinary families with huge dreams. This could happen very well in any rural place in India. Why Indian filmmakers aren't looking at these families and telling their stories is a pricking question.

Personal P.S: The kids are obedient and know their place. When Ali doesn't pay attention to his mother, his father says "You're not a kid anymore, you're nine years old". And Zahra's time-pass, if I may use that phrase, is to look after her new born sister. I sometimes wondered if they were losing out on their childhood. In fact, I saw myself in these kids sometimes, and I believe many of us will identify with either Ali or Zahra - our society and our parents aren't much different from them. If I lost a pencil, I knew I'd get a slap on my back and I feared death to open it to my parents. In spite of the burden of the awareness of family pressure, I knew somewhere inside that my parents had a good feeling about me. That sentiment is expressed a few times in this movie. Thinking again, I don't feel like I lost my childhood. I guess these kids too, when they grow up, remember and relish only those simple, sublime events that made them happy and feel safe.


My movie posts will have to rest for a while. I'm expecting myself to back in form after a couple of months. Sorry.