Monday, April 24, 2017

REVIEW 487: RAKSHADHIKARI BAIJU OPPU


Release date:
April 21, 2017
Director:
Ranjan Pramod
Cast:



Language:
Biju Menon, Aju Varghese, Hareesh Perumanna, Hannah Reji Koshy, Deepak Parambol, Indrans, Alencier Ley Lopez, Anjali Aneesh
Malayalam


Biju Menon could stand in front of a camera staring aimlessly for an hour, and somehow make that work. His comic talent, his knack for subtly suggesting that something else beats below the seemingly frivolous surface and his chameleon-like ability to supplement comedy with gravitas and poignance at the drop of a hat are the fulcrum of Ranjan Pramod’s Rakshadhikari Baiju Oppu (Signed: Patron Baiju).

The film is set in Kerala’s languorous interiors, in a kinda sorta village called Kumbalam far removed from the urban bustle although Kochi is within touching distance. Time seems to stand still here. Those who leave zip ahead of those who stay back. As it happens, many Kumbalam residents simply do not want to leave.

Menon plays Baiju, a work-shirking government official who pours all his energy and passion into mentoring local cricket-loving boys. Thirty-six years back as an eight-year-old, he began playing the game on a vacant plot of land in the area. He never stopped.

Baiju is a founder member of the club/team Kumbalam Brothers. The Brothers and their playing ground are a microcosm of life in this village, which is reluctantly becoming a town and might be a city someday soon.

Baiju is a kind man, the sort who is exasperating to have as husband, father or son, but great to have as a neighbour or friend. Most of his time is spent away from home and office, on the field with his boys. He is a senior citizen in comparison with them, but continues to be a team member. He is not a man of indifferent cricketing talent, but his role in Kumbalam Brothers is way beyond that. He is their captain, patron (rakshadhikari), mentor, father figure, elder brother and buddy, often at the cost of short-changing his own family.

He is the one the boys turn to when a rich parent will not pay for a desperately needed cricket kit. He is the one they confide in through heartbreaks, career struggles and personal loss. Of course there are those in the village who take him for granted, but never with malice. The boys though are utterly and completely devoted to Baiju with every cell of their beings.

In short, he is everything to Kumbalam Brothers and they are everything to him.

There is much that is beautiful in Rakshadhikari Baiju Oppu. The innocence of Kumbalam’s inhabitants, the simplicity and lack of complication, Baiju’s own delicious lack of ambition for himself are all designed to make a city dweller yearn for another way of life. Besides, the pacing – slow and almost sleepy – perfectly complements the seeming aimlessness of the protagonist who is content with his choices even while he celebrates the successes of those who move on.

The humour too is under-stated, like everything else in Kumbalam. Nobody tells jokes, they are just funny, real, believable people.

Ranjan Pramod has had greater success so far as a screenwriter (Manassinakkare, Achuvinte Amma, Ennum Eppozhum) than as a director (he has helmed only two other films so far). That he is a gifted writer is evident in the manner in which he creates about a dozen memorable characters in Rakshadhikari Baiju Oppu without making the film seem crowded. There is Baiju’s sidekick (Aju Varghese) who is searching for a white-skinned bride, there is the team member wooing the pretty woman who lives right next to the playground, the irritable old man whose property also adjoins the playground, Baiju’s slow friend and – though women are marginal to this film’s proceedings – Baiju’s complaining yet loving wife Ajitha (played by the stunning Hannah Reji Koshy) who is thankfully not turned into a ‘nagging shrew’ stereotype.

The casting has been done with great attention to detail, the exception being a construction team whose voices we hear in the end – no doubt we are meant to assume that they are north Indian, but their accents suggest that they are Malayali actors who speak Hindi fluently. The rest though are a roll call of fine artistes, established and unknown. Menon, of course, is fantastic.

Although it seems like nothing much happens in this film, it is packed with stories, sub-plots, satellite characters and meaning. Without sermonising, for instance, it quietly throws light on the colour prejudice and gender segregation rampant in Kumbalam, which is a mini Kerala unto itself. Women are unwelcome on the playground, but are allowed to stay when they put their foot down. Dark-skinned people are accepted in the fold when they stick to their guns.

What is jarring though is that in comedifying that colour bias without qualifiers in a relationship involving a Kumbalam Brothers member, the film unwittingly trivialises the pain it can and does cause. In many ways, Pramod also betrays the narrowness of his male gaze when he reduces each woman’s existence to being someone in relation to a man in this story, not a person unto herself, and when scene after scene goes by with not a female human in sight. It is as if he – like the men in his film often do – forgets, or wants to forget that women exist.

So Ajitha, though not a caricature, is still someone Baiju is happy to leave behind at home. One Kumbalam Brothers player describes the cricket ground as oxygen away from a clingy wife (we have no idea what she thinks). Later, when a woman breaks up with a man she has not even fully hooked up with, the fellow’s friend promptly describes her as a user and a tease. This is the only kind of conversation they ever have about women. Yes, such situations and talk happen in real life – the point is the lack of a countering voice from the filmmaker.

Rakshadhikari Baiju Oppu also tends to romanticise the countryside. Except for pointing out the need for medical facilities in Kumbalam, there is no mention of how tough rural life can be, how discrimination (caste, gender, communal and more) is much harder to flee or shrug off in small, close-knit rustic communities than in the much-vilified ‘urban jungle’.

In Shanavas K. Bavakutty’s exceptional Kismath last year, a low-caste, poor Hindu girl targeted for falling in love with a well-off Muslim man escapes to the big city where she is shown savouring being a drop in an ocean. Our popular cinema rarely reflects this, but the anonymity metropolises afford can indeed be a great escape. Kumbalam though is projected as an unadulterated idyll. The negative characters are asides, the “them” in the midst of the good-hearted “us”. There are two male villains, but they operate on the fringes. Even the supposedly treacherous female lover seems to be in Kumbalam only because her father is in a transferable government job.

This is a rose-tinted view of what can be a harsh reality. Village life is alluring from a distance, but it is definitely not the smooth ride it is often made out to be.

A 360-degree take on Kumbalam might have made this a more mature film. Baiju reminded me a lot of Kunchacko Boban’s Kochavva in last year’s loveable Kochavva Paulo Ayyappa Coelho, but that film by director Sidhartha Siva did not come across as being so selective though it too took a romantic view of the countryside.

As it happens, what we are served in Rakshadhikari Baiju Oppu is so entertaining and Biju Menon is so magnetic, that it would be easy to not look beyond the sweetness and humour of the proceedings or Ranjan Pramod’s smooth narrative. Not counting the needless ‘lesson’ stuffed in our faces in the end, which under-estimates the audience, Rakshadhikari Baiju Oppu is fun and, in its own way, insightful, even though it chooses to tell only part of a story – the charming part, of course.
  
Rating (out of five stars): **3/4

CBFC Rating (India):
U
Running time:
162 minutes 

This review has also been published on Firstpost:


Poster courtesy: IMDB


Saturday, April 22, 2017

REVIEW 486: NOOR


Release date:
April 21, 2017
Director:
Sunhil Sippy
Cast:


Language:
Sonakshi Sinha, Kanan Gill, Shibani Dandekar, Purab Kohli, Smita Tambe, M.K. Raina, Suchitra Pillai, Manish Chaudhari
Hindi


Noor Roy Chaudhary is a young mediaperson in Mumbai, keen to practice journalism with meaning, journalism that makes a difference to humanity and is aimed at the larger good. The chasm separating what she wants to do (unearth corruption, for instance) and what she is allowed to by her video news agency (interview Sunny Leone, cover Ripley’s-Believe-It-Or-Not kind of drama) seems unbridgeable, and so she spends her life cribbing about...well...her life.

Then one day Noor catches a newsbreak that she is convinced will make her. In mishandling that report though, she ends up ruining people who matter to her and almost finishing herself.

Director Sunhil Sippy’s Noor is about her reparation and how she gets her world back on track. It is based on the book Karachi: You’re Killing Me by Saba Imtiaz. The screenplay is by Althea Delmas-Kaushal, Shikhaa Sharma and Sippy himself, with dialogues by Ishita Moitra Udhwani.

Before going into a deeper analysis of this film it is important to get this out of the way: the past year has seen a steady flow of self-consciously ‘women-centric’ films in theatres. Most have been hollow, with zero story and zero understanding of or commitment to women. Their sole goal appears to have been to cash in on what the industry sees as a “trend” of women-centric films – like the best Vidya Balan starrers – making big money at the box office. Yes, the makers of such films see women as a “trend”, not people (like men) with lives that are big-screen-worthy for all seasons. The result: they have ended up delivering self-defeating emptiness with thin screenplays and poorly developed female leads, the worst of them being the Sonakshi Sinha-starrer Akira last year. Noor, which too features Sinha in the lead, is thankfully about a story and a woman with a story worth telling, not about Akira-style fake ‘woman-centricity’.

This is what makes Noor watchable despite its flaws, of which there are many. Sippy’s 28-year-old heroine is a believable creature for the most part, often utterly stupid but also credible. She is more than the cutesy froth with which she is introduced to us – messy, always in a hurry, always late, cocksure, tying her hair with the first thing she can find even if that thing happens to be a sock, anxious to have a boyfriend, anxious about her weight, serious in the hours beyond her hard-partying social life. She is more than all the above because Noor has clearly thought out, clearly articulated feelings, goals and dreams, and the screenplay enables us to truly get to know this crazy woman in all her crazy, mixed-up glory.

Just when you think Noor is headed in the direction of being yet another Bridget Jones (meaning: a character written with a veneer of liberalism but no real pre-occupation beyond worrying about her next boyfriend and her next lay), the writing team thankfully goes elsewhere.

Noor speaks lines mirroring the language of a real youngster from her background in Mumbai – for the most part. I repeat “for the most part” here too, because her “tu”, “tumhara” and casual impertinence towards her fatherly editor-owner is pretentious wannabe coolth authored by someone who seems to have a rather irritating stereotypical notion of how news offices function. It is a major flaw in a film that is otherwise not overtly trying to impress.

Noor’s botched-up big break provokes us to think of the ephemeral impact of news coverage not backed by commitment and follow-ups. What happens when the cameras go away and real human beings are left to their own devices, at the mercy of the powers that be just as they were before the spotlight fell on them? This is the overriding takeaway from the film, which makes even its failings forgivable.

Sonakshi Sinha pulls off her character without appearing to try too hard. Her natural performance as Noor once again raises the question: why does she waste herself primarily on Akshay Kumar starrers and the like that demean women and relegate her to being no more than a pout and large eyes and an attractive profile?

The supporting cast is interesting. Kanan Gill and Shibani Dandekar both have attractive personalities and it would be nice to see if they can pull off larger roles. M.K. Raina as Noor’s Dad is a sweetheart. In fact, the film might have benefited from exploring his character further. Manish Chaudhari brings depth to his performance as Noor’s boss, even if the treatment of her relationship with him leaves much to be desired.

The pick of the cast though is the wonderful Smita Tambe playing a poor woman caught between a corrupt system and irresponsible journalism.

The film’s pluses do not eclipse its minuses though. Its news office milieu is poorly sketched, and while showing Noor re-reporting a news story that was treated cursorily at first, it does not bother to explain what “research” she added to it beyond saying that she did. Such superficiality takes away from the film’s good intentions.

Towards the end, when it seems like Noor is about to lose her way again, this time to become a conformist, a senior tells her: Having found yourself with such difficulty, are you already forgetting that self? It is an excellent line perfectly placed in the film. Unfortunately, it can equally be applied to Sippy’s approach to this work. Just as he has convinced us that Noor is a person of substance who is complete unto herself, he quickly slaps a romance on to his storyline, as if to hurriedly satisfy conventional Hindi film viewers who may consider a romantic interest an essential part of any film and more conservative viewers who consider a woman incomplete without a man. Worse, he then wraps up his film with an ‘item’ song in which Noor dances in a little dress and is pushed around by a man, as women tend to be in formulaic Hindi films.

C’mon, Mr Sippy, why not go all the way? Why be apologetic about the point you make?

That said, I would still like very much to see the director’s next film. This is his return as a helmsman after a gap of 17 years (I confess I have not managed to find his first film, Snip!, released in 2000). Here is hoping that Film No. 3 is more confident of itself and we do not have to wait another 17 years for it.

Ditto for Sonakshi Sinha. Four years have flown between the remarkable Lootera and Noor which, despite its follies, serves as a good showcase for her talent. Here is hoping we do not have to wait another four years for a film that does not treat her like a prop.

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

CBFC Rating (India):
UA
Running time:
116 minutes 24 seconds 

This review has also been published on Firstpost: