Saturday, April 18, 2015

REVIEW 327: NANAK SHAH FAKIR

Release date:
April 17, 2015
Director:
The credits name Harinder Sikka, but Sartaj Singh Pannu has reportedly gone to court claiming that he is the film’s director
Cast:


Language:
Glowing computer-generated images, Arif Zakaria, Puneet Sikka, Tom Alter, Adil Hussain
Hindi


I suppose this film could be treated as a Beginner’s Guide to Sikhism for kindergarten kids.

Wait… Wait… Trash that thought. Even in the interests of teaching children about one of the world’s great religions, it would be a bad idea to expose them to this dull, tacky film which is nowhere close to being a professionally written and directed biography of Guru Nanak, founder of the Sikh faith. Nanak Shah Fakir (NSF) is a cloying ode by a man who is either an unquestioning devotee himself or is targeting viewers fitting that description. Let it be shown in temples of worship that express interest, but not in temples of learning please.

One point needs to be clarified: when I use the word “tacky” to describe NSF, I am not referring to its production quality for the most part. The film travels with Nanak to a string of stunning locales which have been shot extravagantly by the cinematographer. Uttam Singh’s music with the dominant sounds of the rubab are haunting. NSF also features a bunch of talented character actors including Arif Zakaria and Adil Hussain. Zakaria gets the meatiest role of the lot as Mardana, the Muslim wandering minstrel who went on to become Nanak’s constant companion. In that sense, Nanak Shah Fakir is National Award-worthy in comparison with that other paean to a religious guru recently released in Indian theatres: the crude, juvenile MSG The Messenger. 

MSG was so bad that you could entertain yourself with the discovery of how bad bad can be. NSF is not that kind of film. The problem lies in its adoring tone and the director’s lack of detachment. The film is evidently aimed at only those among the faithful who would not accept  a film from anyone but a full-blown believer. Atheists, agnostics, people of other religions, even those within the Sikh community who are comfortable being doubting Thomases and Sikh/non-Sikh aesthetes seem to be completely off this film maker’s radar.

Another off-putting aspect of NSF is the fact that Guru Nanak here is a product of computer-generated imagery (CGI) – glowing moving images representing Nanak from infancy to adulthood, always with an indefinable face. The character speaks at all times in a resounding voice that is apparently intended to convey his ethereal nature.

The reason for this awkward creative choice is the position taken by Sikh authorities quoted in the media that Sikhism “does not allow humans to portray the Gurus”. Sadly, the result is a film that is impossible to get involved with, a film that remains as distant throughout as the near-echo in which Guru Nanak speaks here. What is lost completely is the point that Nanak’s teachings show us he was rooted in the real world. What can religious leaders claim to have achieved when their strictures have resulted in an ordinary film about an extraordinary mind?

This review is not unmindful of those who object to the depiction of Nanak by an actor. If you as an individual are convinced that humans should not portray the great Guru, then by all means, do not make a film going against your conviction. But why stop others from doing so, whether non-Sikhs or even Sikhs who disagree with this tenet? This is akin to governments across India banning beef, thus trampling upon the right to choose of non-Hindus and beef-eating Hindus?

People have a right to their beliefs. The problem is that religionists tend to impose their beliefs on others. In this particular instance, Sikka claims that his film has been cleared by the Akal Takht, the highest Sikh body. An opening text plate in the film states that it has the blessings of the Takht, yet the very same Takht has been reported in the media demanding a ban on NSF. 

While that complex battle of he-said-they-said rages (NSF as of now has already been banned in places) the film ends up as a whisper of what it could have been. It is presented by A.R. Rahman, and Oscar/National Award-winning sound designer Resul Pookutty is a co-producer. It would be natural to assume that these two stalwarts would only lend their names to a worthy film. Sadly not. 

Perhaps the director wanted no doubt in anyone’s mind that he has not used actors, which would explain the sub-par, flat and bald-skinned CGI Nanak. That constraint could not possibly justify the terribly obvious CGI elsewhere though, most notably in a battle between yaks at one point.

Cliches abound in the film. Of the aforementioned yaks, a black one attacks Mardana while a white one protects him. This colour scheme rears its head repeatedly. Evil folk, especially invading Mughals, are usually shown clad in dark shades. Nanak, on the other hand, is a white-skinned figure in snow-white garments – like fairness cream ad-makers, someone in the film seems convinced that a glow cannot emanate from an Indian complexion.

The film has some horrendously violent battle scenes, all captured by a shamelessly voyeuristic camera. Lingering shots of blood spurting out of a headless neck, a head lying on the ground, severed limbs and other body parts abound. There is no greater evidence of the hypocrisy of the Central Board of Film Certification than that this gruesomeness has been let off with a U/A certificate – possibly because of the religious subject – whereas the far less gory NH10 (in which very often violence was implied rather than in-your-face) was recently handed an A rating. 

Guru Nanak was a fascinating figure whose ideas on caste, family, religion and the concept of Ik Onkar could make for an enriching film. Nanak Shah Fakir though is a blandly reverential depiction of his life. It touches upon some of his best-known teachings, but lacks depth and energy. Sikh groups protesting against this film are giving it more attention than it deserves.

Rating (out of five): *

CBFC Rating (India):
U/A
Running time:
145 minutes


Photograph courtesy: https://www.facebook.com/nsfmovie

Friday, April 17, 2015

REVIEW 326: MARGARITA WITH A STRAW

Release date:
April 17, 2015
Director:
Shonali Bose (Co-director: Nilesh Maniyar)
Cast:


Language:
Kalki Koechlin, Revathy, Sayani Gupta, Kuljeet Singh, Hussain Dalal, William Moseley, Tenzin Dalha
Hindi and English with subtitles


A young woman with cerebral palsy gets sexually adventurous...

That single-line description is enough to convey the point that Margarita With A Straw is both brave and rare. Thematic courage need not translate into great cinema, but writer-director Shonali Bose grabs the subject with both hands, refuses to pussyfoot around it and handles it with remarkable sensitivity. In the ultimate analysis though, Margarita is uncommon not only for its unusual heroine but also because, unlike too many films revolving around a physically challenged person, it does not set out to draw tears. It is a celebration of a remarkable life.

Nagesh Kukunoor has often said about his pathbreaking film Iqbal: a few minutes into watching it, you will forget it is about a boy with a disability. Though not quite in the league of Iqbal, Margarita With A Straw manages pretty much the same thing in spite of a major difference between their leads: Iqbal was deaf-mute, Laila’s debilitating condition stares us in the face. That we’re able to get past it to focus on the bright, sparkling human being beneath is a measure of the film’s excellent writing, deft direction and Kalki Koechlin’s wonderfully natural performance.

Perhaps “performance” is not the best word to use in this context. So comfortable is Kalki with Laila, that it would be easy to forget she is the same healthy actress with a ramrod-straight back we know well. Like Laila, she does not deny her character’s reality, but she certainly does not spend all her time dwelling on it either. Kalki lives Laila but does not for a moment allow the physical demands of the role to overshadow her character’s emotional depth.

When we first meet Laila Kapoor, she is a student in a Delhi college whose spirit is not bound by the wheelchair that carries her body. She writes lyrics for an indie band, watches adult videos on her computer, touches herself unapologetically, has a lively social circle and balks at being singled out for a prize at a university contest because she happens to be “disabled”. Give her empathy and compassion, not favours or condescension – got it?!

Laila’s classmate (Hussain Dalal) who is also in a wheelchair makes it clear that he wants them to be more than friends, but she is attracted to the band’s lead singer. Nima (Tenzin Dalha) responds to her romantic overture with embarrassment. Laila soon takes off for a creative writing course in New York University (NYU). The story travels from New Delhi to New York and back, as she finds love, romance and sex, and realises that they are not synonyms. The film’s title is drawn from the first alcoholic drink Laila consumes – at a nightclub with a friend in the US. 

Along with the writing, DoP Anne Misawa too deserves credit for not allowing us to stay overly conscious of Laila’s physical condition. Misawa shoots Laila primarily in close-ups and mid-shots, possibly to de-emphasise the perennial presence of that darned wheelchair in her life. Her camera also captures New Delhi and New York in an unstereotypical fashion, without setting them up as cities of cliched contrasts and without mandatory excursions to globally recognised landmarks. FYI outsiders, those metallic sculptures resembling giant sperms are a relatively recent addition to the vicinity of Delhi’s iconic All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS).

A large part of the success of Margarita comes from its talented leading lady. Among the rest of the cast, Hollywood-gazers might enjoy spotting the attractive William Moseley here playing Laila’s NYU classmate Jared – same boy who played Peter in The Chronicles of Narnia film series. Of the other supporting players, a special cheer must go out to Revathy who brings warmth and conviction to Laila’s Aai as she does to every one of her screen appearances; and to the sweet-looking newcomer Tenzin Dalha who subtly conveys awkwardness without revulsion towards Laila in a flicker of a moment that might have been overplayed by a lesser actor.

One quibble: Tenzin does not look Assamese even to my inexpert eye, so it’s strange that the screenplay gets Nima to specify that he is. This moment stands out because no other character in the film is required to announce their roots, which led me to google him and discover from imdb.com that he is “an Indian actor of Tibetan origin”. Characters from north-eastern India are rarely seen in Hindi films, but this plus point in favour of Margarita is neutralised by the self-conscious handling (we did not have to be told where Nima is from) and what seems like a “they all look the same” attitude towards anyone from the east, south or north of West Bengal.

Treat that as a passing caveat from a finnicky viewer, because the overwhelming takeaway from Margarita is a sense of of upliftment. Considering the widespread tendency to view persons with disabilities as asexual beings, the film’s comfort level with the theme is commendable. Even when Aai is shocked at a mention of bisexuality, the director clearly is not. In fact the nicest part of this film is that it does not make a song and dance of anything, not even Laila’s challenges. Even her strained speech is conveyed to us without a fuss, with the simple act of subtitling.

In a bid to stay positive though, it does seem like Margarita papers over too many of the problems a character like Laila is likely to face in the real world. The ease with which she finds sexual partners defies believability even in the more liberal climes of the US. The ending, too, comes off as unnecessary. Kalki’s sunny smile is enough to convince us that Laila is a woman brimming with life, who is keen on romantic relationships but does not assess her worth based on whether others want her. The point did not have to be rubbed in with that slightly forced finale.

These glitches notwithstanding, Margarita With A Straw is a beautiful film.

Rating (out of five): ***1/2

CBFC Rating (India):

A
Running time:
102 minutes