Man looking at a display screen of movies outside a multiplex

From Escapist Movies… To Escapist Movie-goers

Our movies are so escapist, we moan. And merrily keep going for them. Because after all… We want to be like that on-screen person, or we want to be with that on-screen person. We want that plush house we see them in, and / or we want that Eurail trip we see them on. With or without song and dance.

I like the movies, I like them as much escapist as realist (only sometimes as the same movie), and so don’t have a problem with this. As Zoya Akhtar carped to Karan Johar on his show recently, “They say my movies are about rich people! So tell me, India goes to the movies to… see poverty?!”

However, as someone who watches his movies almost exclusively at the theatres – even when I catch them on TV, they are DVDs of flicks I’ve first loved in the theatre – and has been doing so for the longest time, across various cities (Maharashtra-born and bred, largely Calcutta-educated, and currently roosting in Chennai), there’s another kind of movie escapism I’ve noticed, which has less to do with what’s happening on screen and more with what the venue has to offer. Allow me.

Young couple getting cozy at the moviesFirst up, the ecstatic but exasperated couples, married and unmarried alike. Not finding even half a place to snog in peace, with increasingly claustrophobic metros and eternally alert cultural guardians, the dim environs of the theatre provide the perfect sanctuary for these Jacks and Juliets. And the theatre operators seem to have kept this audience segment in mind too. A popular multiplex chain in Chennai has couple seats, which seem like two seats fused into one, much like the bodies it anticipates. In Bombay, most chains offer discounted fares for morning and early afternoon shows, aimed at hormonally high college kids getting off from college or bunking it, as well as BPO millennials, getting off work at… 9am. So, while the on-screen couple wages war to land up in each other’s arms, these ones appear to have already crossed that hurdle.

Composite of repeat images of French actor, Jean Dujardin, sleepingSeeking a different kind of comfort are folk who come for some shut-eye. These are usually individual men in their early 30s or thereabouts, most probably married, but perhaps with not much room or quiet at home for a good night’s DND sleep. This is typically in the afternoon, with many also coming to kill time before a meeting. Their movie of choice is unsurprisingly not a hit one – or one before it becomes… a sleeper hit – as that means less people around to disturb and more aircon to absorb. I’ve also found many not returning after the interval, and thus not knowing whether the couple ended up with each other, or more aptly in the case of our movies, how.

This next one – to paraphrase a line from ‘Sex and the City’ (the series; the movies of course I watched on screen and soon after got the DVDs) – for the cheap seats in the front. And this might be exclusive to Chennai. Where the people love their movies and their superstars, and where the government seems to want them to continue doing so. Ticket rates have been capped at a very pleasing Rs 120 for almost a decade. (Compare this with the heartburn-inducing 500-1000 or upwards it can get to on weekends and holidays in some multiplexes in Bombay.) Here, there are seats, right in the front, kissing the screen, for as low as 10 bucks. Wooden or at least a bit humbler than the better-upholstered ones just one row behind, tickets for these are available about 10 minutes or so before the show and typically at a counter on the sidelines. These are aimed at, the best way I can put it, the man (am yet to spot a woman on these seats) ‘even commoner than the common man’, but with no less zeal for silver-screen servings. With the long-standing demand to increase ticket prices, the rates for these seats should perhaps remain where they are. Even as these folk find ways to move up the auditorium-seating ladder.

The last one took me a while to figure out. The mature / middle-aged solitary man, coming in for almost every movie. Hmm, perhaps not too different from me; and I shall sportingly come to that shortly.

I would first speculate, ‘Movie reviewer’? No, the reviewer – and I’ve bumped into and spoken with a couple of them more than a couple of times – behaves differently. They are time-strapped, most probably rushing to another movie soon after this one or to write this one’s review, and are very focused: no eats, no phone checks, no nonsense; no doubt to take mental notes of every dialogue and note.

So, is that middle-ager lone ranger a connoisseur? No, this breed is quite different too. The aficionado is usually more relaxed than the reviewer, and is more often than not open to having a casual chat with a random stranger (me) about the ongoing movie, as well as movies in general, though never during the movie. We wouldn’t be cinema-lovers otherwise.

Middle-aged man looking bored during a movieMr Party-of-One (again, these are mainly he’s), from what I’ve observed, is similar to the sleep-seeker, but with more weighing him down than just lack of space. He is perhaps seeking to disengage, if only for a while, from an undesirable situation or station in life: a fractured marriage, a joyless job, an empty nest, benumbing loneliness, or some other vex that three hours in a dark cocoon can provide some solace from. He takes his seat, watches the proceedings on screen devoid of emotion, doesn’t get anything to munch on, and leaves, with the same stoicism with which he came in. Or am I reading too much into it? Well, if there’s a better explanation, the comments section awaits.

Me now. I am an escapist movie-goer too, and not just to be transported mentally to the Swiss Alps or to Super Achievement. I have both exciting and not-so-invigorating drivers that have me heading to the multiplexes.

Exciting first. I love the variety of eats at Indian theatres. Besides the ever-popular cola-popcorn pair-up, there’s a mini-Swiggy at the concessions: samosa, chaat, iced tea, ice cream, cold coffee, pizza, burger, nachos… What theatre operators can’t get by ticket rates, they are clearly aiming to get by the palates.

Not-so-exciting now. I end up ordering and enjoying those treats mostly on my own. Over time, with more and more of my friends having crossed over to marital “bliss”, and not nursing similar “aspirations” myself, I have found myself booking fewer and fewer seats at the movies, until it has almost always come down to just one. That was in Bombay. In Chennai, where one hears as much Hindi as one witnesses raindrops, I head to the movies to get some of that tongue into my ears. (I see how that sounded.) And so, I’ve gone for the insipid ‘Irada’ and the frivolous ‘A Flying Jatt’ with the sole irada (intention) of having some Hindi flying into my ears. But these films have been so listless that I’ve promptly been lulled into la-la-land, ending up exactly like one of those dozing types I identified earlier.

Warped same-language subtitles of The Star Wars beginning text scrollHowever, like all these things go, the movies and the theatres don’t seem to be doing their escapism-providing job very well these days. Or maybe, there are just so many distractions now. Screen captures at the hero’s intro; annoying luminescence from FB / WA updates during a lull on screen, and from Temple Run playthroughs during a song; those canoodling couples not stopping at canoodling; that snoozer in the depths of slumber and the heights of snoring; businessmen conducting their business in loud monologues and telling you to shut up and mind your own business when you request them to do so; corporate have-nots having to provide updates to belligerent bosses at any required time of day, thanks to the diabolical and no-doubt HR-invented concept of “work-life merge”; invocations of patriotism just before the movie begins; fervent vigilantes doing a beacon-like eye-sweep for paraplegics who aren’t standing in honour… And if all that isn’t excruciating enough for folk like me who really like their cinema, then my pet peeve: same-language subtitling. Because people don’t have the patience to decipher a foreign accent, because 100-crore-seeking moviemakers don’t want to lose these audiences, and because when you visit the Big Apple, New Yorkers will be walking around with speech-to-text display boards around their necks.

Sigh. Maybe it’s time to escape from the movies. And maybe those video-streaming sites have come to India at the right time.

I wrote this piece for The Hindu’s thREAD. Here’s the edited version on their site: This piece on thREAD

A poster of the movie Main aur Charles

Irficionado | Movie | Random Thoughts | Charles-Gnarls

Logo for Irficionado series

I think I end up doing a Random Thoughts when the movie is hyped but ends up being disappointing (as in this case) or I find it disappointing or no big deal (as in the case of, will I be trolled for saying this, Baahubali). And so, Random Thoughts ends up being Snarky Thoughts. Below’s my Random Thoughts for Main aur Charles. (And if interested, here’s it for Baahubali.)

/

Man, how many women are there in the movie? Correction. Man, how many white women are there in the movie? It should have been called Mem aur Charles.

A bare-backed Mandana Karimi in a shot from Main aur CharlesNone of those women wear bras in the film. And if they do, they take them off before you can say ‘bra’. As in the case of Mandana Karimi. The same with panties. And the same with Mandana Karimi.

The movie needed subtitles. For Randeep Hooda / Charles’s French-accented Hindi / English / whatever. Je vous prie.

The movie uncannily ends up living up to its title. It’s about everyone else and Charles – their view / take on Charles. So, you pitifully get to see little of Charles’s famed cunning, at least not from his side. For that, I guess we’ll have to wait for a movie titled Main, Charles.

Prawaal Raman, the director of Main aur Charles, against the backdrop of his previous movie, 404Charles is finally sentenced to 11 years in jail, instead of the 2-3 he’s supposed to get initially (as the investigating officer manages to charge him for a murder conspiracy instead of the conning charges planned initially). Given the disappointing movies he’s been steadily making for the past several years (404: Error Not Found, Darna Zaroori Hai, Gayab, and this one), Prawaal Raman (the director) should get 11 years out of Bollywood.

So, the best thing about the movie ends up being the much-promoted remix song, Jab chaye tera jadoo (originally from Dev Anand’s Lootmaar). You could have saved money by just fixing it as your caller tune. Or watching it on YouTube. So, here goes…

Movie poster of Pawn Sacrifice

Irficionado | Movie Review | Pawn Sacrifice

Logo for Irficionado series‘Pan-Sacrifice’

Years of playing Spider-Man seems to have done something to Tobey Maguire that we may have overlooked all along, or not thought about. Either he was quietly developing his acting skills beneath Spidey’s mask or that he is very eager to prove that he knows more than just to swing from buildings and kiss upside down.

Tobey Maguire holding up his Spidey costume in one of his Spider-Man movies

Tobey then takes to Pawn Sacrifice with a vengeance. As the madcap, mercurial, maverick mid-70s US chess GM, Bobby Fischer, he fills up a good deal of the movie. (The movie is about him, after all.) But not content with getting a meaty role, he goes about actually trying to fill up the screen. There are sequences and sequences that feature only him and his slow but steady descent with paranoia. And when that isn’t enough, you get scenes and scenes of his eyes moving from one side of the socket and screen to the either, as a display of his increasing suspiciousness.

Tobey Maguire with suspicion large on his face in Pawn Sacrifice

But forgive these, and you spot enough instances of Tobey possibly receiving a nod for a nomination. He gets into the character like the GM into his game (or does he ever leave it?), ostensibly living it as much as Bobby lived chess. He allows you to get very close to the character too. He conveys his growing loneliness, detachment, and annoyance with the world very well – to the point of you beginning to lose your patience with him, much like many of the folk around him, who possibly tolerated the genius only for his genius on the square board.

But that’s the limit to which Tobey, or maybe, the screenplay goes. It shows you his journey, and allows you at most to be a bystander, but doesn’t allow you to get into it and be a passenger with him. Unlike a similar movie earlier this year, also about a beleaguered genius and in similar territory of war, The Imitation Game, about the WW1 Germany-codebreaker and computer inventor, Alan Turing. In that ‘game’, you cheered for him (while he’s inventing the machine, and taking his time doing so, in the eyes of others) as well as felt his pain about his gayness, both as a boy and as an adult. There, you feel the film. Here, you merely view it.

Pawn Sacrifice though doesn’t suffer only on these counts. In trying to make its protagonist the hero, or king, of the piece, it reduces the supporting cast – all of them – to mere pawns. Be it his team of Priest and Paul (the one starts strong but slowly lets his light and presence fade in the shadow of the genius; the other begins commandingly – “I have been the agent to the Rolling Stones” – but next scene on, becomes softer than a marshmallow); the few odd women in his life (Mom leaves early on and resurfaces only as a faded figure toward the end; Sister makes weepy appearances, and ok, one cheering one; Hooker’s make-up and clothes have more to do than she); and the most incorrigible, his adversary, Boris Spassky. Boris is reduced to a wussy caricature, and if ever Liev Schreiber, who plays him, wanted a role to come out of his perennial fringe-line presence in Hollywood, he chose the wrong one. He is shown as a man of few words, and those words are all Russian, and someone who fails to even offer resistance, cinematically, to the emerging genius of Fischer.

And then, when the end credits roll, you understand why. Why all the pieces are stacked in Tobey’s favour. He’s produced the movie, damnit. Check and mate, viewer.

Welcome Back poster

Meview: Very Welcome

The opening credits – still shots of the principal players to the accompaniment of the single word ‘Welcome’ – start rolling, and you know something’s on. But it hits you only with the killarious graveyard scene way into the second half. Welcome Back is a ’90s movie. And as madcap as they came.

This seems to be the era for celebrating the era in which Gen Y came to be. There have been some awesome tributes (Dum Lagaa Ke Haisha), some awful ones (Dheere Dheere aka Bore Me Slowly), and many more brewing. (Heads-up: Saajan completes 25 years next year, and the baap of all path-breaking movies, Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar, the year after that. Keep those hashtags ready.)

But back to Welcome Back. WB is all things nineties: sister from another mother (Shruti Haasan, to Nana Patekar); son from another father (John Abraham, to Paresh Rawal); conning jodidaars, only this time, the gender gets changed (Dimple Kapadia and newbie Ankita Srivastava); bhais/goons (Anil Kapoor – fusing roles like Loafer, Laadla, Ram Lakhan; Nana Patekar, and Abraham); right down to a visually challenged don (Naseeruddin Shah, picking up from Mohra, and pumping in the fun of Ishqiya) and a written-on-the-sets, tweet-wit story (Kapoor and Patekar discover they have another sister, Rawal uncovers his wife has another son, they decide to get them married, then not, then Naseer jumps in, with a son… Should I go on?).

But is it fun. Again, think nineties: David Dhawan directing all his favourites (Govinda, Sanjay Dutt, and to a lesser extent, well, Anil Kapoor)… in one movie. It’s that amped up. Clearly, everyone’s having fun here. It’s like they went on a three-month vacation to Dubai/Abu Dhabi, decided on the spur of the moment to do a movie there, came on the sets asking, “Toh aaj kya karna hai?” And the response was, “Aap ko kya karnaa hai?” And then, all went about their roles like pre-schoolers discovering crayon.

So, Paresh Rawal, seemingly happy to be back to comedy from netagiri, rolls his eyes, totters about exasperatedly (first half) and schemingly (second half), and even delivers an about-two-minute dialogue through a cut-out of Abraham’s head. (Told you.)

Naseeruddin Shah rolls his eyes too – although he can’t see – and rolls his guns and dialogues even more… And keeps them coming thick and fast. As his character exclaims, “Mazaak thaa, mazaak!” And then finally regains his sight, after hitting his head on a bumper. (Believe me now?)

Naseeruddin Shan in a scene from Welcome Back

Dimple Kapadia and Ankita Srivastava wear flowing and itsy-bitsy outfits respectively and switch their accents from posh (when faking a Maharani and a Rajkumari) to street (when being their true characters) to Hyderabadi (when being their real true characters).

John Abraham and Shruti Haasan, perhaps the weakest actors here (but then, they are pitched against stalwarts), sense their limitations or those of their roles and play along, happy to flare (he), simper (she), and gallivant (they).

But the movie belongs to the bhai/muh-bola-bhai jodi of Anil Kapoor and Nana Patekar. They get meaty parts, and pounce on it like… bhais. Kapoor lets his eyes and facial expressions do half the acting (keep your eyes and ears on all alert for the same graveyard scene) and his clothes (like Govinda’s in the nineties, but glammed up) and glasses the other half. Nana Patekar is the perfect bromantic partner to him. Check him trying hard to keep his control in most of the movie and then losing it big-time in the graveyard scene and at the end.

Anil Kapoor and Nana Patekar in their promo poster for Welcome Back

Plus, the seasoned duo are sporting enough to take a barrage of ageist jokes thrown at them. (Here’s mine: Knock, knock. > Who’s there? > Our knees.) But seriously, how old do they look – 45 and 47? Seriously too, the next Welcome – oh yes, it’s looking very strong after this, and one hopes sooner (Welcome Again?) – should concentrate even more on these two. After all, don’t we, and they, want to know: Will they ever get a girl? Or maybe not.

And if you want any more nineties’ masala, in the end, you have everyone in the middle of the desert trying to escape exploding devices, galloping camels, and a billowing sandstorm. (Clearly, the director, Anees Bazmee’s turn to play with crayons.)

Naseeruddin Shah near a chopper in a climax scene from Welcome Back

The last time I had so much fun at the movies – and heard others having too: laughing, clapping, thumping their thighs, whistling at snippets of the first part (Feroze Khan’s RDX character got the loudest) – was Mujhse Shaadi Karogi, surprise, another David Dhawan romp-in-the-amusement park.

Welcome back, Welcome Back.

Side-note:

Raja Sen’s review of the movie on Rediff stated something like, “in Shruti Haasan’s case, the acting genes (Kamal Haasan and Sarika) have cruelly missed her”. I’ve seen her in a couple of movies now (the earlier being D-Day, which gave her a better platform for performance than here), and I think he misses the point. I read his review before I watched the movie and kept a close look-out for this. And now having watched enough Kollywood (Tamil) movies too, I think I got it.

Shruti Haasan in a scene from Welcome Back

Shruti has worked more in South Indian movies (and Sen doesn’t seem to have watched too many of these), that too Tollywood (Telugu) movies, and her acting sensibilities have got moulded that way. So, she hams it up and gestures a lot more than necessary for Bollywood, but all of which is par in Tollywood, where everything needs to be supersized (these are the folk who gave us Baahubali, after all).

Shruti Haasan in several promo shots from the Telugu movie, Race Gurram

Several other non-South-Indian actresses who have made the South their base after trying their luck initially in Bollywood have gone this way too. They get entrenched and established here, then based on their success here, get a Bollywood offer or two, but don’t cut the grade. Think Shriya Saran, Asin, Kajal Agarwal, and Tamannah (the last one in all her outings). In Drishyam (the Hindi version), my parents asked me of Shriya, “She’s that Sivaji girl, right? Where’s she from? Oh, Punjab. But she’s looking completely South Indian now.” There you go.

So, I think Shruti’s just fine. And I’m not even a fan.

Bahubali cartoon 2

Bahubali-hoo: Random Thoughts on Bahubali

Why random thoughts? Simbly.

Why not a proper review, or even a meview, of India’s highest costing and biggest grossing movie? No.

No? No.

Only “random thoughts” for the latest retelling/mashup/hybrid of all the Indian epics and myths? Exactly.

Begin random thoughts…

CG can solve all water problems in India, or at least in ancient India. Check out that elixir flowing and flowing and flowing from those waterfalls and waterfalls and waterfalls…

Ah, water, and soon after, heroine debut shot in white. Clever Rajamouli. Some things in Indian movies never change, no matter which side of the Vindhyas.

Tamannah in Bahubali

Man, so many shots of Tamannah’s navel. See why Rajamouli took her. Maybe he should later make a separate movie on Avantika, the warrior princess (the character played by Tamannah), and call it… Bahubelly.

How come so many shots of Tamannah’s tummy? Isn’t she a warrior princess and thus robed rough? She is, but then Prabhas/Bahubali discovers her mask, then her, then her warrior attire, then her “womanly” clothes underneath that attire, then… Wait, this is only a U/A movie. Naughty Bahubali. Naughtier Rajamouli.

So, is Tamannah’s role all about her upper nether region? No, she is also shown running from her captors. They shouldn’t have done that. She looks funny doing that. She should have stuck to white, water, navel. Ambitious Rajamouli.

Hey, isn’t the movie about Bahubali and Prabhas? Oh, yeah. Distracted Irfan.

So, Prabhas at the beginning is shown barechested – abs, water, and all. Now, movies have started objectifying men too.

And those abs are what he spent three years for? He should have just done them on CG. Oh, maybe he did.

Before Bahubali: Prabhas who? After Bahubali: Prabhahubali.

So… Anushka plays a hag. And… Tamannah wears a rag.

Prabhas, as both the Bahubalis (what, you didn’t know?), gets to be with both the above. What a jag.

Wait, doesn’t the movie star Rana Duggu… Dugga… Daggubatti too? It does. But he’s so tall, he doesn’t fit in the screen. Oh, wait, that was his statue. No, wait, that was actually him.

Also, he mostly snarls, snorts, and grimaces. So much so you think he’s one of the animals.

Speaking of which, most shots that feature an animal have a “CGI” disclaimer appearing whenever an animal is shown getting hurt or killed. Most, not all. I distinctly remember that horse that is pushed, that elephant that falls, that black mass that is hit by a globular stone… Sorry, that last is the rival king.

‘So, did PETA review this film?’ ‘What is it doing about it?’ ‘Maybe I should do something about it?’ ‘This “No animals were hurt in the making of this film” disclaimer is turning out to be worth poo cents.’ Oh, two more reels have passed. Oh, the war is still on. Ok, nothing missed.

The rival army (Kalakeyas) speaks a tongue (Kilikili, kid you not) that’s a mix of gibberish, baby talk, and I swear you, English. Am pretty sure I could make out words like ‘shutter’.

And they speak so s-l-o-w. Or was that just bad dubbing?

So then, the movie has actually released in six languages: Telugu, Tamil, Malayalam, Hindi, French, and Kilikili.

The movie’s going to sweep all the awards next year. (Big, successful movies do that. Some things don’t change about Indian movies, no matter which side of the Vindhyas.) Prabhas. Rana. Ramya. Sathyaraj. And CG as best actor.

There’s a scene in a tavern, where Prabhas and Rana go to apprehend a spy, where Rajamouli plays the tavern-keeper. At the end of his scene, he is shown pocketing tons and tons of gold coins. Prophetic Rajamouli.

Bahubali cartoon 2

In the same tavern, a bit later, there’s a song where three white, reed-thin women are shown gyrating around Prabhas. They seem straight out of a B-grade movie. A B-grade Egyptian movie. Couldn’t Rajamouli have done better for an item song? Ah, he had already pocketed the money by then.

On a less flippant note…

For people north of the Vindhyas oohing-aahing-FBing-tweeting-blogging about the meganess of Bahubali, you need to know that all Telugu movies are this wild, or at least aim to be. Check out Indra the Tiger (starring Chiranjeevi and Sonali Bendre). And Rajamouli’s earlier Eega, which was about – hold your collective breath – a man killed and then reborn as… a housefly (‘eega’ in Telugu) and then going after the man who killed him. Oh, passed out? Spot, get some of that CG water…

Seriously, Rajamouli maxed imagination and bigness with Eega. This one is just… Bahumouli.

Joy and Sadness from Inside Out

The Joy of Sadness

Our stress-filled times have also given rise to people and things offering us antidotes: psychologists, life coaches, self-help books, alternative healing… Almost all seem to, um, stress on the need to remove sadness from our life, and thus offer us ways to do so. And how’s that working out? Disney-Pixar’s Inside Out provides an alternative point of view. In the movie, cheery-faced, happy-footed Joy sees the world only through sunshine-tinted glasses and wants everyone else – Riley (the girl whose mind she is in and unwaveringly cheers on) as well as the other emotions in Riley’s mind (Fear, Anger, Disgust, Sadness) – to do the same. And during the crisis of the movie, she draws a circle around blue-hued, feet-dragging Sadness, requesting her to stay within, in order not to add fuel to the crisis. When Sadness fails to do so, Joy then beseeches her not to taint any of Riley’s core memories with her touch (they turn from golden to blue if she does so), else they will turn a figurative blue forever – and so will Riley. And that’s how they resolve the crisis, right? Not. Quite. Her mind, and her heart (if our emotions have minds and hearts of their own), begins to change when she sees that Sadness does a more successful job of helping Bing Bong, Riley’s imaginary friend (part candy floss, part elephant, part cat), deal with his sorrow than all of Joy’s ‘Go, Bong!’ couldn’t. Realising Sadness’s worth, and need, she rushes back to get her toward the end (after they are separated in the second half) to help Riley break down in front of her parents – so that they know what’s upsetting their daughter and can thus do something about it. (It was deeply satisfying to know that Riley and her family do not eventually leave the new city they moved to – that’s what triggers the crisis – but learnt to make happy adjustments to it.) Much as all those shrinks and new-age healing would have us believe then, we need sadness in our lives. (Much as we need all the other emotions. When Joy and Sadness are accidentally ejected from Riley’s headquarters, her emotional expressions are left to the trio of Fear, Anger, and Disgust, who try to be Joy, but fail miserably.) Without sadness, we wouldn’t know what we value (and how much), we may not be able to connect deeply to others (all of us are happy, right; so why bother?), we may not be able to help out somebody in need… Joy-Sadness are like yin-yang, or more crucially, 02-C02. We need oxygen, but not only oxygen. Too much oxygen, and everything around us will be freely combusting. Similarly, we need carbon dioxide, because plants, who we need, need it. So, the next time you’ve got the blues, don’t banish them away. Take your time to get over a low score, an unfulfilled dream, a broken heart, a lost one… Shed a tear, or a torrent, if need be. At the end, you will feel better. Inside out.Joy and Sadness: Inside Out