Sunday, February 14, 2010

My Name is Khan – A Movie Review

In a film industry that has gained worldwide renown for being all about the song and dance, it is but natural for material to be recycled. And unlike the west, which despite its many flaws has both an admirable respect for the concept of copyright and a conscience enough to credit a remake, over here, we just call it “inspiration”. After the shameless rip-off of ‘I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry’, ‘Dostana’ in 2008, which coincidentally was a huge commercial success, Karan Johar had a very good last year as producer rolling out two strikingly dissimilar but similarly fresh films in ‘Wake Up Sid’ and ‘Kurbaan’. He continues his roll this year, with his own directorial feature ‘My Name is Khan’, and ignoring his glaring shortcomings as a director, needs to be applauded for this effort to atleast find new settings and formats for the retelling of his trademark love stories.

My Name is Khan
Similar to the first person narrative feature of his directorial debut, ‘Kuch Kuch Hota Hai’, MNIK is a story heard through the tongue of the Asperger’s afflicted Rizwan Khan, who journeys across half the world and then through the breadth of another continent, to say as we’ve all heard or read somewhere, “My name is Khan, and I am not a terrorist”. After watching the uninspiring trailers, and the edited overly precious shots of Shahrukh playing Khan, I did not walk into the cinemas expecting much from this seemingly gimmicky film. I walked out surprised though, and pleasantly for the most part. In a polarized world, where the line of demarcation is clearly becoming religion even over race, the intent of MNIK is noble. To its credit, unlike the also well intentioned ‘Delhi 6’ last year, this film manages to build on its premise more effectively. In a nutshell, the story is in the form of a question: Are the world and its inhabitants so far gone that you are not allowed an individual persona that may be separate from your religious affiliations?
My Name is Khan has many stories, and many Khans, in spite of what the titular protagonist may have you believing. There is Raziya Khan, the mother who brought up her son believing in him with faith and pride, and ignored the rest of the world as she single handedly taught him all that is right and just, even till her death. There is Zakir Khan, the underappreciated but well loved younger brother, and Haseena Khan, his college professor wife, who are traditionalist Muslims but loyal family. There are Mandira and Sameer Khan, the mother and son who find place in their lives for another, who seek love and happiness and the feeling of home. And there are the thousands of unnamed people, who in brief moments of time, Johar introduces us too, if only to show us the impact this Khan has on them. Independently, most of these stories, and most of these people, are interesting, but together, in this ambitious screenplay written by Shibani Bathija, none of the stories develop to real fruition.
I like to start with attributes, and this film has those in abundance. Like I’ve said multiple times before, the biggest success of this film is its intention. It’s pure and it’s refreshing. The casting is unusual for a Johar film (aside from the lead pair of course), and most of the supporting cast does a fine job. Zarina Wahab, a departure from the Kirron Kher and Jaya Bachchan mould of Dharma Production mothers is very effective in her enthusiasm and both authentic and endearing in her manner. Jimmy Shergill is amongst the most underachieving of contemporary Indian actors (he was apparently a de facto choice after the actor originally cast for the film was denied a visa), and even though this isn’t his shining moment, he clearly needs to find a film where he can shine. Navneet Nishan is the cliché of the horny old woman/man Johar enjoys injecting into his film. The clear standout though, is Sonya Jehan. It took me a while to place her as the actress who started out her career as the lead in ‘Taj Mahal’, but she is stunning, and a very gifted actor. Even in the few scenes that she had in the film, she will hopefully catch the eye of someone with a good script and a good role, ‘cause she has the looks and the acting chops, and deserves a shot.
The music of the film is the better of the two albums Shankar Ehsaan Loy have scored this year so far, and the tracks Noor-e-Khuda and Sajda and even Tere Naina are fantastic. One huge plus for the film, and this in fact pushes the film up an entire letter grade in my book, is the fantastic cinematography. Ravi K Chandran is nothing short of brilliant as he captures a panoramic view of the United States, especially in the scene at the point of intermission in the Arizona desert, and even in more intimate moments, such as the scene in the song Tere Naina, whilst Kajol gives Khan a haircut, he uses natural light so effectively that it leaves you stunned. The look of the film also, is suitably opulent without being jarring, in typical style for a Dharma film, and Kajol looks her best in years.
Of the leads, Kajol is good. Scratch that, she’s awesome in the material she’s been given, and in my personal opinion, after the crazy awesome turn she did in ‘Dushman’, this is perhaps her most accomplished performance. BUT…more on that later. The film of course, unequivocally belongs to Khan. Shahrukh Khan has been called many things, but more often than not, a standout actor he is not. For so many years he has defined the term star, and despite his many popular awards for Best Actor, apart from ‘Chak de India’, there is hardly another movie you could cite in which he was more an actor than a star (‘Swades’ was an awful bore for me, sorry!). In this film though, which I suspect was written specifically for him, he has the time and the meat to bite whole heartedly into a game changing role, and for the most part, passes brilliantly. He has a naturally intelligent sense of humour that he lends to his character and despite some of the cheesy lines that may put you off in the previews this is an authentic, effective portrayal of a highly developed autist. Not even he can help pass this off as a masterpiece though.
The film has many flaws, and quite frankly, they overwhelm the film towards the climax. And that is very disheartening actually, because one hour, and an intermission later, I actually thought it was turning out to be just brilliant. Whilst walking out of the cinema, I tried to figure out what changed in the second half. Perhaps it is a problem only I face, but dialogue, IMHO, is the crux of any film. It is what layers an idea into a screenplay, and what distinguishes achievement from ambition. Like I’ve said before, this script has ambition aplenty, but somewhere along the way, and it is my belief that it happened whilst penning the dialogues, it veers away from living up to its potential. There are moments in the film where Johar and his collaborators could have perhaps opted for silence but instead choose to go for dramatic emphasis. It is the single threads of wool that make the quilt warm though, and in this particular case, just as you start to feel toasty, it shrinks to nothing. Also, unbelievably disappointing was the way they wrote bits of Kajol’s character and the initial interaction between her and Khan. Her opening scene and the terrible dialogue made you cringe at best, and then the constant fixture of Khan, a travelling salesman in her salon was inexplicable. There are two points on which I am going to elaborate here. A) The premise of Khan’s journey, whilst interesting, and some of his moments on the road, such as his meeting the motel owner played by Vinay Pathak, agreeably insightful, there is such a thing as too much. By the end of the film, the only good deed Khan had not done was blowing away Hurricane Katrina with the power of his breath, and honestly, I feel sure that Bathija at least considered giving him the Nobel Peace Prize. To go from entertaining to arduous in twenty minutes is a lesson to be learned from this screenplay. B) The crisis in the film, once again, seemed so juicy to Johar and his associates, that they gave it not just one harrowing scene but two. Whilst the first was passable, if only because of Kajol’s natural talent, the second was just overkill. It was loud, obnoxious, unreal and odious. What should have been a pivotal moment became a terribly overacted sham.
These may seem like a lot of shortcomings, but in truth and in all honesty, these are all of them. And since I’m being honest, they are far fewer than I thought they would be. And at the point of the interval, I couldn’t remove the plastered smile off my face, even if I tried. Whilst the second half may have been a tremendous letdown to the buildup of the first, it wasn’t all bad, and in a hackneyed sort of way, Johar does somehow get his message out. And it is a message that needs to be out. This may not be the best film Johar has made (‘KKHH’ will retain that for some time to come), but it is, at the very least far better than any other film to come out of his direction (and I’m counting the awful ‘Kal Ho Naa Ho’ in that mix). Watch it, if only once, if only for Shahrukh Khan and Kajol together on screen, if only for the beautiful landscape of the US through RKC’s lens, or if only because not every Khan is a terrorist.

That's not all...

Thursday, February 4, 2010

List: My Favourite Movies this Year

With the Academy announcing nominations for this year’s awards, I thought it was high time I put this list up, that I’d compiled more than a while ago. Since, I’ve watched a few more movies, which might have changed the list a little, but I’ve decided I’m going to consider those to be 2010, and go ahead with my original list.
This year, there were some great movies, some stinkers and a gigantic bunch of films that ended up middling at best. There were some cinematic moments that you couldn’t help cheer for (Shoshana’s revenge), there were times you couldn’t contain a gasp (being introduced to Pandora or Paradise Falls) and then there were moments you were forced to cringe (sitting through Sonia and Pepperidge hamming their way through Clouseau’s feeble attempts at making funny). At the end of all that good, bad and sometimes very very ugly, we’ve come to the close of yet another year. And amongst a veritable collection of best-of-lists, here’s mine. There were many movies that almost made it to my favorites, but somehow couldn’t move me enough. So I’m starting with the movies that I also enjoyed, to the movies on the bubble, which on another day could substitute the movies that finally made the list, and finally entering the movies that this year made it worth my while to spend all those hours with all those characters.

Also enjoyed:
1.       Goodbye Solo – Ram Bahirini
2.       Un Prophete – Jacques Audiard
3.       (500) Days of Summer – Marc Webb
4.       District 9 – Neill Blomkamp
5.       Adventureland – Greg Mottola
6.       Away We Go – Sam Mendes
7.       Invictus – Clint Eastwood
8.       3 Idiots – Rajkumar Hirani
9.       Coraline – Henry Selick
10.   The Young Victoria – Jean-Marc Vallée
On the Bubble (in alphabetic order):
1.       The Brothers Bloom – Rian Johnson
Thoroughly entertaining, and wonderfully well acted, beautifully shot and cleverly written, ‘The Brothers Bloom’ just missed the cut for me. A lot of people felt the transition from frothy and light to Shakespearean tragedy was uneven but I, for one, found it intriguing. The only fault I found in the film was some patchy editing and uncertain repeat value. Still, it was a commendable follow up to ‘Brick’, another film I thoroughly enjoyed, and I can’t wait to watch the next film Rian Johnson churns out.

2.       In The Loop – Armando Ianucci
This film bounced in and out of my top 10 as I began to make this list. Always at the back of my mind for being amongst the first times I actually enjoyed British humour, there is a crassness that made the stereotypical Indian prude inside me cringe. And yet, there is no doubt in the fact that if you want funny, you got it. If you found the summer sleeper ‘The Hangover’ hilarious, you WILL pee your pants in this one.

3.       Kurbaan – Rensil DeSilva
Indian cinema has seen some remarkable thrillers, and yet, it would be a stretch to expect anyone to be able to name three memorable thrillers from the 2000s. In Kurbaan, which is a hard to classify movie, we finally have that. It isn’t a perfect movie, and tries hard to find its footing towards the end, eventually hobbling to a by-and-large dissatisfying climax, but is still not without mention. In fact, tautly written for most of the screentime, it ably avoids many of the pitfalls the similarly themed (and unfortunately better received) New York succumbed to. Special mention must be given to the surprisingly consistent acting of all the players, especially Kirron Kher and (incredibly shockingly) Kareena Kapoor. Kurbaan may not be amongst the best films this year, but it definitely better than over 95% of the colder than tepid fare launched out of Bombay Talkies this year.

4.       Sunshine Cleaning
A cute little Indie that slipped in and out of people’s mind this summer, I was conflicted on whether I wanted this film to have this spot or ‘Adventureland’. I finally decided to go with this one after watching ‘The Young Victoria’. I think it is high time Emily Blunt got her due, and whilst her performance in Victoria is deservingly garnering her accolades, this film comes together much more cohesively. If Viola Davis could get an Oscar nomination for one scene in Doubt, Blunt should’ve wished this film could have come out later in the year, ‘cause even though Amy Adams, Steve Zahn and Alan Arkin are no pushovers, she really gave her all and made this one of the most engaging character studies in a long time. This film isn’t art, but it is entertaining, and at least for me, has been memorable.

5.       Taken – Pierre Morel
A lot of people have probably forgotten ‘Taken’ already, but this is the one movie I’ve watched the maximum number of times this year, and is also definitely the reason I look forward to watching Pierre Morel and Liam Neeson in their next forays out in 2010. (I will have a list out on that as well). Definitely the action entertainer of the year, Liam Neeson put himself on the map in Hollywood with this flick in a bigger way than before and banked over $200 million worldwide on a budget of $25 million.


10.    Where the Wild Things Are – Spike Jonze
So many people wrote this film off as a misfire, but I still can’t get over how beautiful and simple and profound I felt it was. The last Spike Jonze movie I watched was the incredible ‘Being John Malkovich’, and this isn’t perhaps as revolutionary, but it has so much more heart. It is often difficult to adapt short literary works into feature length cinema, and some might even claim this to be better suited to a short film, but Jonze does a really good job of bringing life to the world created by Maurice Sendak. The music of the film is also fantastic and more than anything, Max Records does an incredible job of playing Max, the misunderstood, imaginative, and painfully lonely child who goes to the land of the wild things. Definitely not a movie for children, with its constant melancholic tone, but a fantastic film nonetheless.

9.       Star Trek  - J J Abrams
For a first time Star Trek watcher, I found the first fifteen minutes of this film unexciting, but as it catches on, and starts to take shape, I have to say I found the reason why so many millions of people do not shy away from making a fool of themselves by being labeled “Trekkies”. J J Abrams does an awesome job of contemporizing the story and leaving enough geek in it to satisfy the loyal fans. Zachary Quinto moves on from being Sylar in the now-decaying Heroes, and owns the role of Spock, even when faced by the original Nemoy.  _\\// (That’s a Vulcan salute for the uninitiated).

8.       Up In The Air – Jason Reitman
I enjoy Jason Reitman’s oeuvre more than any other contemporary filmmaker. I don’t think that means he’s the best filmmaker out there but I think it does mean that he makes amongst the most cleverly entertaining topical films. This is the second time he’s garnered award buzz is just three outings in feature length film-making, and under his own writing, I think he stands as good a chance at winning as the best of them. The film was hard to classify but impossible to not enjoy and he created some memorable characters for all the actors, specifically Clooney, who fit Ryan Bingham to a T.

7.       Wake Up Sid – Ayaan Mukherjee
Fun from beginning to end, if Wake Up Sid is amongst my favourite films this year, it’s probably the same reason I enjoyed Juno a couple’a years back. This film is unashamedly formulaic, and you could predict the ending thirty seconds into the film. Getting there is what makes this film worth watching. Ayaan Mukherjee puts together a bunch of endearing characters and milks the hell out of every cliché you could find in a feel-good film, and does a brilliant job of it. When you get out of your seat in the cinema, you’re bound to feel good, and for a long time after.

6.       Up – Pete Doctor and Bob Peterson
To start, I have yet to watch ‘The Fantastic Mr. Fox’ and have been told that I might revise my opinion as to my favorite animation film this year, but for now, I have to say that ‘Up’ was awesome. Amongst my favorite films to come out of Pixar studios, a studio already renowned for its habit of winning big at the Academy Awards, Up is in equal parts inspiring and equal parts entertaining. Carl Freidricksen and Russel took us on a journey of a lifetime, and we can never thank them enough.

5.       The Blind Side – John Lee Hancock
Sandra Bullock! What a year it’s been for her. She played the typical rom-com heroine in the summer hit ‘The Proposal’ and then had a humiliating disaster with the over-rated Bradley Cooper in ‘All About Steve’. One might think that’d be enough, but she just bounced right back, and bounced oh-so-high. Some stellar performances, an all-American sport, a feel good story and an author backed role for Bullock in this film make it amongst the best we’ve had in this genre. Surprising everyone and no one and getting Bullock nominations galore, this film is already amongst the ten highest grossing domestic releases this year, and released on par with New Moon, this film has shown staying par with its collections amongst the slowest dipping in percentages. And yet, those aren’t why I find this amongst my favourite five films this year. It’s here because IMHO, only a stone could not leave the cinema with a big smile after this one.

4.       The Hurt Locker – Kathryn Bigelow
Not many people are aware that Kathryn Bigelow was one amongst James Cameron’s many wives. I’m not sure if there is a point to that, so we’ll call it interesting trivia. Either ways, this will go down as a genre defining movie, with a never before experienced closed-up examination of conflict zones, in a completely non-judgmental way. Jeremy Renner’s stunning turn as the conflicted squadron leader who only finds purpose in the combat zone is also worth all the hype. Oh, I remembered my point: With both Bigelow and Cameron churning out fantastic films this year, wonder who rubbed off on who!

3.       Kaminey – Vishal Bhardwaj
My initial plan was to separate this list into the ten Indian (Hindi) films I enjoyed watching the most, and the ten International films I enjoyed the most. That was before I actually began making my list, and stopped at four, and that too after forcing the last one in. Nevertheless, Kaminey would definitely be amongst my most enjoyable times spent at a cinema. Wildly entertaining, uninhibited in its stylization and treatment, with a mind-numbing music score, this film was unequivocally the best film to come out of a stalemate Indian film industry in this last year. It will hopefully inspire original writing and awesome acting in the future, or at least serve as a reference point for those trying to identify it.

2.       Inglourious Basterds – Quentin Tarantino
One great genius, one troubled time, and one incredible experience. Tarantino is clearly with this film, the master of entertainment. In your face, with traditional plot devices like revenge, authentic use of language and fantastic casting, this is the film that could have been my favourite of the year, had it not been for the next title. No mention of this film can be complete without also mentioning Christoph Waltz. Even if I never see him in another Hollywood movie again, he, much like Heath Ledger last year, has fulfilled his cinematic purpose, and will always be remembered as Colonel Hans Landa, and rightly so.

1.     Avatar – James Cameron
Now that’s cinema. James Cameron, twenty years of planning, three hundred thousand speculations in the press, billions of post-Titanic expectations, 350 million dollars, and an entirely new planet make this amongst the best experiences in a movie theatre of my life. If Steven Spielberg took us back in time with Jurassic Park, Cameron took us forward, with a fantastic film, simplistic in story and perfect in execution. Avatar should become the biggest success of all time, only to vindicate this man who took on the world, and turned it on its axis.

That's not all...