Friday, December 25, 2009

Best Movies of 2009

Hindi cinema saw breaking some more boundaries this year. From a dark crime dramedy to an insider look into the big bad and fantastic world of the Bombay film industry (sorry Raj "the" Thackeray - Mumbai film industry does not have the same zing to it). It is refreshing to see actors and producers taking their chances on risky subjects and the risks being paid off: Examples: Karan Johar producing Wake Up Sid with a debutante director and an unusual lead pair, Shahid Kapoor and Priyanka Chopra working for Vishal, Amitabh not being Amitabh in Paa, Dev D breaking all known boundaries of textbook romance and tragedy, Hrithik Roshan not afraid of displaying the vulnerability of a superstar (himself) in Luck By Chance etc. It's a wonderful time for Hindi cinema. That's not to say all was well - big money is still spent on tripe such as Blue, London Dreams, Aladin, Main Aur Mrs Khanna, Jail, Chandni Chowk to China, Wanted, De Dana Dan (Priyadarshan should be tried along with Ajmal Kasab), Dil Bole Hadippa and many more. However, along with the dimwitted stuff like the ones listed above, we were served with cinema that was entertaining and respectful of the fact that most of the moviegoers are completely sane and balanced individuals with reasonable intellect. It's also a welcome change that not only were these good movies, but made reasonable money for their producers.

Here's a quick rundown on this years favorites:

Director: Zoya Akhtar

Never before has a movie displayed the inner workings and the struggles of the people of the Hindi film world with such finesse, sensitivity and humor. Luck by Chance to me is the movie of the year. I am so thankful that Zoya got to this before Madhur Bhandarkar who would have positively made a pedestrian and a juvenile movie out of this subject. LBC is littered with many moments of true beauty and lyricism. It treats all its characters with real dimensions and shades of real people - each of them has his/her own axe to grind and the ensemble star-cast gives justice to even the smallest of the characters. Well played Zoya. This one, my friends will certainly age well.

Director: Vishal Bhardwaj

Twin brothers: check. One good the other not so: check. Mistaken identities: check. Bad guys and badder guys on the trail of the hero and heroine: check. Drugs and violence: check. Do not be fooled, this is not as you think an 80s masala flick, it is a bloody and a raucous dark comedy which runs faster than you can think. Vishal has created a pulp masterpiece (never mind the naysayers, in my books it is). Ohh, and did I mention it has one of the best climaxes of Hindi cinema.

Director: R Balki

A father who plays son to his real life son and the project involves the self-absorbed Bachchans. I had passed my judgment on the movie even before I saw it. Boy, was I proven wrong!! Crisp dialogs, straight from the heart performances and the right dose of emotions made this the feel good movie of the year. The central story delivers the goods so much so that I am willing to let go of the minor irritants (Paresh Rawal and the shtick about media's social responsibility). This is the only movie, yes, the only movie where Amitabh is not being Amitabh.

Wake Up Sid
Director: Ayan Mukherjee

Boy meets girl, girl likes boy, boy doesn't know what he wants, boy leaves girl, boy realizes he loves the girl and all is well - pretty pedestrian stuff. Ayan Mukherjee's debut film takes this plot , avoids most of the cliches of the rom-com genre and creates new ones but how adorably. The lead pair is so wrong on paper - Ranbeer Kapoor and Konkona Sen Sharma - yikes! Yet, on the screen they light up an entire neighborhood. Also watch out for the supporting actors, finally Hindi cinema is making more of them than just woodwork and frame fillers. Special mention to Supriya Pathak - we need more of her and her delightful sister Ratna Pathak who also by the way gave a memorable Maa in Jaane tu ya jaane na last year.

Director: Rakeysh Om Prakash Mehra

Yes, sue me, but this movie worked for me, if not in its entirety, in more places than it didn't. Agreed Mehra tried to cram as many issues about urban India as possible in a slightly confused screenplay, but the sincerity of his intentions were evident in every single frame. What further elevates the movie is its wonderful cast - Om Puri, Waheeda Rehman, Supriya Pathak, Pawan Malhotra, Divya Dutta (someone give this lady a decent role - she is a rockstar), Sonam Kapoor, Abhishek Bachchan, Prem Chopra, Rishi Kapoor (is it me or this man is a revelation in his older avatar), Deepak Dobriyal, Atul Kulkarni - all glorious. There was much joy in watching all of them perform. Mehra displayed tremendous eye for detail in numerous scenes in the movie and I am willing to forgive him for a hot-mess of a climax. This one will also age well. Talk to me after 15 years.

3 Idiots
Director: Raju Hirani

Raju Hirani knows how to infuse social messages into a completely formulaic yet enjoyable screenplay, he proved it with the Munnabhai franchise and with "3 idiots" he does it again. So what if there are some scenes which stay longer than their welcome, some of the character caricatures and names are juvenile (Examples: Viru Sahastrabuddhe : since when did a 50 something Konkanastha Brahmin had an official first name "Viru" but only to come up with the nickname VIRUS), sure the casting of 40 somethings as college kids proves that the director does not quite trust the material with the younger generation of actors, yet you leave the theater exhilarated and satisfied - why, I am still trying to figure it out. Although this one will not stand the test of time, but as a raucous entertainer it works. All is well!

Other notable mention goes to Anurag Kashyap's Dev D and Raj Kumar Santoshi's Ajab Prem ki Ghajab Kahani. Also, I have not seen Kashyap's Gulaal and Shimit Amin's Rocket Singh, but I am sure Rocket Singh would have made the list had I seen it.

2010 seems to be another promising year, notably: Ishqiya (Vishal produces and his assitant Abhishek Chaubey directs) and Rann (RGV directs and seems like he is back to his senses).

Monday, December 21, 2009

Best Songs of 2009

End of another year, which means its time for the annual list of songs that made me sing (to much annoyance of Aditi). Disclaimer: This in no way is an exhaustive, scientific list of all the music released this past year. It is purely based on my personal likes.

Song: Emosanal Atyachaar
Movie: Dev.D
Singers: Rangeela, Raseela
Lyrics: Amitabh Bhattacharya
Music: Amit Trivedi
Amit Trivedi shined with Aamir last year and scored yet another winner with the soundtrack of Dev D in 2009. The Emosanal Atyachaar track is unique, rustic, crude and yet immensely hummable. The whole marriage band musical composition gives it an earthy feel (whilst the rock version is a trip in itself). Amitabh's words are to the point "Bol bol why did you ditch me whore?". An anthem for the loser lover types - there is a Devdas in most all of us and this one is for him).

Song: Pardesi
Movie: Dev.D
Singers: Tochi
Lyrics: Shellee
Music: Amit Trivedi
There are so many gems in the Dev D soundtrack that to choose a few is unfair. Right from the opening Sitaar sequence this song is a surefire winner. Amit shows a tremendous flair of combining the desi with the videsi (without the pseudo techno fusion feel) and Pardesi is one such number.

Song: Payaliya
Movie: Dev.D
Singers: Shruti Pathak
Lyrics: Shruti Pathak
Music: Amit Trivedi
What a trip this song is, the tender vocals of Shruti Pathak for this Hindustani classical inspired tune, a loopy beat of a windblower, the "by god" sound and incredible use of shehnai/sitar/tabla - all gel to form a trance like song which probably would take a whole new meaning when listened under the influence.

Song: Rehna Tu
Movie: Delhi 6
Singers: A R Rehman
Lyrics: Prasoon Joshi
Music: A.R.Rehman
A R Rehman had a rocking 2008 with an Oscar and some fantastic soundtracks in Yuvraaj, Ghajini and Jaane tu ya jaane na. 2009 opened with another ensemble soundtrack in Delhi-6. Each track saw ARR pushing the boundaries set by himself. Rehna Tu is sung by the man himself and the composition drips with luminosity - the tune and the poetry could light up the darkest of places. There is a simple mellifluous quality to this composition which grows on you with multiple listenings (note a subtle appearance of shehnai - or something that sounds like a shehnai).

Song: Arziyaan
Movie: Delhi 6
Singers: Javed Ali, Kailash Kher
Lyrics: Prasoon Joshi
Music: A.R.Rehman
Ohh boy, did I die and reach "Jannat" when I heard this for the first time. A classic ARR Islamic devotional song sung in perfect unison by Kailash Kher and Javed Ali. The words of Prasoon Joshi are luminous to say the least, sample these:

"Ek khushbu aati thi, Main bhatakta jaata tha,
Reshmi si maaya thi,Aur main taktaa jaata tha,
Jab teri gali aaya, sach tabhi nazar aaya
Mujh mein hi woh khushbu thi, Jisse tune milwaya"

"Sar utha ke maine to kitni khwahishein ki thi,
Kitne khwab dekhe the, kitni koshishein ki thi,
Jab tu rubaroo aaya, nazre naa mila paaya,
Sar jhuka ke ek pal mein maine kya nahi paaya"

Ethereal! If there is any chance that this non-believer will cross on the other side, it would be because of such compositions by ARR.

Song: Genda Phool
Movie: Delhi 6
Singers: Rekha Bharadwaj
Lyrics: Prasoon Joshi
Music: A.R.Rehman
Rekha Bhardwaj is once again at the top of her game in this one. ARR, Rekha and Prasoon have created a natural, completely Indian song with Genda phool. The opening of the song belies the beat that soon follows and sucks you in before you know it. Rekha teases and flirts effortlessly. This woman is magic. Watching Waheeda Rehman dance on the funky beats was another delight in itself.

Song: Dhan te nan
Movie: Kaminey
Singers: Sukhwinder Singh, Vishal Dadlani
Lyrics: Gulzar
Music: Vishal Bharadwaj
Gulzar and Vishal come up with a song that is total "masti" and total "dhingaana". Vishal Dadlani (of composers Vishal-Shekhar) and Sukhwinder Singh go to town with this catchy number - a full on throaty rendition to some pulsating music and fantastic lyrics:
"kahin kabre hain, kahin khabarein hain
Jo bhi soye kabron mein unko jagaana nahi"

Here's an interesting bit of trivia. This composition aired first on a small tv show called Gubbare on Zee Tv in the early 90s. The song was composed by Vishal himself so plagiarism here.

Waiting for the duo's next outing with Ishqiya in 2010.

Song: Raat ke dhaai baje
Movie: Sukhwinder Singh, Sunidhi Chauhan, Suresh Wadkar, Rekha Bharadwaj, Earl
Singers: Dominique
Lyrics: Gulzar
Music: Vishal Bharadwaj
What a joyous song this is - Rekha Bharadwaj, Kunal Ganjawala, Suresh Wadkar, Earl and Sunidhi Chauhan seem to be having a ball of a time singing this dhinchak song. If Rekha teases and taunts, Suresh Wadkar's voice comes as a surprise and delivers a punch to Gulzar's lines.
Getting married in the middle of the night was never more fun.

Song: Gulon mein rang
Movie: Sikander
Singer: KK
Lyrics: Faiz Ahmed
Music: Sandesh Shandilya
A beautiful melody composed for a ghazal-esque song. The original is a Mehndi Hassan ghazal.
KK's vocals hit the right notes with this new take by Sandesh Shandilya on this oldie Ghazal. Mohit Chauhan renders the same song with a different tune, but does not match up to KK's version.

Song: Iktara
Movie: Wake Up Sid
Singer: Kavita Seth, Amitabh Bhattacharya
Lyrics: Javed Akhtar
Music: Amit Trivedi
In an soundtrack where most of the songs are by Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy with their rock-meets-trendy-desi-attitude style, this one song stands head and shoulders above the rest. When I first heard the song while watching the movie, it rung so different from the rest of the songs in the movie, that I almost thought this one has to be by some other composer and of course turns out this is composed by Amit Trivedi. The song is penned by Javed Akhtar and depicts the confusion of the two young urbanites who have fallen in love (but are unaware or unsure of it). Kavita Seth provides her rich deep throated vocals to this wonderful melody. The rest of the songs are good, but SEL cannot match up to this one.

Song: Mudi Mudi
Movie: Paa
Singer: Shilpa Rao
Lyrics: Swanand Kirkire
Music: Ilaiya Raja
The maestro returned back with a neat little soundtrack for this movie. This three minute track is the kind which will get in your head and stay there for a long time. You will find it playing in your head unconsciously while brushing your teeth or walking on the street. It is wonderfully orchestrated and Shilpa Rao sings this song with a lot of zing .

Song: Yeh Zindagi bhi
Movie: Luck By Chance
Lyrics: Javed Akhtar
Music: Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy
This song is an ode to the magical-ruthless-attractive world of movies. (Another such song that comes to mind is the wonderful forgotten gem by Gulzar from Sitara: "Yeh saayein hain"). Javed Akhtar's lyrics capture the hope in the hopelessness of the many dream-seekers who come to loose everything in this sinister world.

"Samjhaane se kab maana hain, dekho karta zid hain yeh dil
Choone hain taare isse, chahiye saare isse"
A mention must go to to Zoya Akhtar for a wonderful picturization of this song - possibly the best picturization of a song in 2009.
Overall a stellar year for Hindi film music - we heard some new voices, the veterans kept their promise and we the music lovers had a plate full of delicacies to devour. Hoping for a rocking 2010 - music-wise and other-wise.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Paa - A Review

I must admit upfront that I was very skeptical before watching this Bachchan family movie. I was on a short trip to India and the Indian television was replete with promos of this father-son-son-father gimmick of a movie on every channel, every FM radio station and on billboards all over town. I will be honest and admit that I have developed a new "allergy" towards the Bachchan clan. To me the Amitabh of the 70s or 80s is a different person (the kind of demi-God for which kids like Jamal Malik will jump into human excrement to catch a glimpse of) than the one who hosts inane TV shows, endorses everything from fine wool fabrics to cement and whose choice of cinema is that of "Ram Gopal Verma Ki Aag" - enough said.

So when the promos of "Paa" showed an almost unrecognizable Amitabh and a Rahul Gandhi'esque Abhishek I wanted to duck and hide. Memories of that Bhansali inflicted pain called "Black" came rushing back and I found myself shaking my head involuntarily trying to discard any remnants of that experience. However, my cousins wanted a movie date with me and so with as much reluctance as a dead man walking towards his execution, I gave in - 'tis my fate, I said.

As the screen came alive with adman R Balki's second directorial venture (Cheeni Kum was his first) and P.C. Sreeram's camerawork, I found myself getting involved with the proceedings. By the time the end credits rolled I realized that I just had a satisfying movie-going experience. The plot is essentially a gimmicky version of "The Parent Trap". Sr B plays a thirteen year old child - Auro -who is suffering from an extremely rare genetic condition called progeria - which causes rapid aging of the body and leads to eventual death of the patient at an early age (being fifteen years old is like being ninety years old).

Vidya Balan plays Vidya, a single mother to Auro who was a result of an accidental moment of passion from her student past at Cambridge. The "bloody sperm donor" (in Vidya's own words) is Amol Arte, played by a Jr B who seems to be channeling Rahul Gandhi as a daring outspoken and a cool young MP. Amol wants to pursue a political career and hence they separate with much bitterness. As predictable as such plot lines go, Auro and Amol cross paths and sparks fly. They like each other, spend much time together and eventually realize the blood relation and you know what happens.

Sounds mundane and been-there-seen-that, right? Wrong. Although the plot is trite and the progeria aspect of the main character is a plot trick (how else can you get a real life father to play the son to his real life son), the characters are very well-defined, the script deftly avoids mushy melodrama and manages to tug at your heart just enough. Amitabh's Auro is a delight, (the man is barely recognizable behind all the prosthetics ), never for once does the star take over the character. It's a major feat that you forget who is playing Auro (the make-up artist takes a lion's share in that) and begin to identify him for what he is and understand his motivations. The scenes with his grandmother and his school friends sparkle with humor and have a genuine quality to them.

Vidya Balan and Abhishek play the estranged couple with required efficiency (mercifully the production house did not make this an all family affair and cast Aishwarya Rai in place of Vidya- however Jaya Bachchan makes a cameo appearance). Vidya Balan looks like a doctor who can take care of a son with a rare disease without the support of a man. She does a good job when she has to emote silently with her eyes but comes off a little awkward when the script demands of her to display some histrionics in the form of sudden outbursts of angst and despair. Arundhati Naag as Auro's grandmother is a picture of grace. Ilaiya Raja returns to Hindi cinema after a long gap and the music lends well to the tone of the movie - the "Mudi Mudi" track is already a hit.

While the movie stays true and focused to the central theme of the plot for most of the time, two minor subplots about slum development and media bashing don't go too well (and when Abhishek's character quotes the line from Spiderman - with great power comes great responsibility - I found myself cringing uncomfortably).The character of Paresh Rawal as Amol Arte's politician father, comes off as too black or white and leaves a sour taste in an otherwise economical script.

Even with the above mentioned minor hichakis (sly me!) you leave feeling satisfied and smiling and there lies the success of Paa. Big B, you managed to restore some faith in this once-upon-a-fan of yours.

Friday, December 18, 2009

I Am A Stranger Here Myself

Bill Bryson is one of my favorite authors – primarily because his writing is totally non-pretentious, is not about any great philosophical. political or scientific thoughts, uses an English which does not need a frequent visit to and has a genuine frank quality as if that’s how he intended to write it in his first draft – ‘straight from the heart’. One such published works of his is “I am a stranger here myself”. Bryson was born in Iowa and spent a great deal of his lifetime (20 years) in Great Britain. This book is a collection of his memoirs after he returned from the Queen’s kingdom and started a new life in New Hampshire, USA. The essays in the book talk about his memories of life in America when he left and the difference in the life in America when he comes back. Of course, Bryson with his blunt and acidic style lends these essays a humorous and a candid tone. This post is not about this book, but just about how similar these experiences are for me personally when I visit India (moving back to my motherland might actually further broaden these experiences).

With every trip after the first 5 years of living in the United States, I find my own country, even my own town a bit stranger. I find myself trying to look for a sign of some semblance of that place I could relate to, of a place I was familiar with. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like there is nothing that I cannot relate to. There is plenty, as they say, you can never leave home. The home I grew up in, still feels like me, still responds to me and I to it. I know its secrets, and it mine. I know where the courtyard slopes slightly and a small puddle of water will form after it rains, I know which cabinet door needs a little play to open, I know which light switch needs to be pressed a little harder for the light to stay ON, I know that place underneath the window sill where a sparrow builds a nest in summer, I know how the light flows in the living room as the Sun struts from East to West, I know where my dad keeps the tools, I know where my mom keeps loose change, I know how it smells in every season, I know that the sink faucet drips - I know it, and it knows me. Sadly though, I can’t say the same about my neighborhood, about my city, about my country. I am loosing it, by each passing day, or it’s loosing me with each passing day. But to them three, the loss doesn’t mean much; to me however, it’s like losing a parent. It’s all but natural to have a neighborhood, city or a nation change after 10 years, after all I have. Some of this change is just a natural progression of things; most of it happened while I was away (totally my choice – to be away) and hence comes off as a shock when I experience it.

I don’t understand my neighborhood when I don’t see that little clearing where we played cricket after school (there is a temple there now – like we needed more of those), when some of my childhood friends (with whom I played cricket on that clearing) have become exactly the kind of people I keep myself far away from, when the lake near my house is now a garbage dump, when I hear the screams of a woman and find out that my neighbor is beating up his wife brutally (and the rest of the neighborhood says – it’s a regular thing). This whole neighborhood seems like a bizarre place – it bears no resemblance to the one I left 10 years ago - save for the flickering street light in front of my house – it still flickers as if along with me it’s trying desperately to hold on to a sweeter past.

I don’t understand my city when some of the streets I rode my bicycle (or moped) have disappeared, when old cinema halls have given way to new shopping malls, when my school building looks like a sad ware house, when I feel scared driving on a lonely street at night, when the evening Sun blankets a dense smog/haze on the city which lingers on late into the night rendering the night sky absolutely starless. There is a big cricket stadium, there are a few multiplexes, there are swanky new restaurants, but at the same time the slums have grown in size, the Thursday crowds at the Sai temple offer tens of thousands of rupees to the temple and the hundreds of kids begging for money outside the temple seem to be increasing in numbers each Thursday.

I don’t understand my country when I see people stand up dutifully to the national anthem before the start of a movie in the cinema hall and completely ignore their civic duties to the Nation, when everyone seems to be in an insane hurry on the roads but have all the time in the world for everything else, when people are running over young children and senior citizens on the roads as if it were a competitive sport, when people honk incessantly at nothing or no one in particular, when cell phone service is cheaper than sugar or pulses, when television oozes such gunk it stinks up the entire living room, when SMS and Orkut scraps is an effective way to communicate with the youth, when I see little kids wearing masks on school buses (supposed to protect them from the swine flu), where every village has cell phone coverage but little essential medical facilities, when vegetables are spray painted to make them look fresh, when you can pay your water bill online but there is little water in the taps, when you can pay your electric bill online but have to spend 4 hours a day (on a good day) without electricity, when I cannot tell how many exact states there are in the Nation.

I am sure, no I am positive, that if I spend sufficient time (cannot quantify this time just yet), when things will change in front of my eyes, I will become one with the change. But for now, every time I visit, I feel like I am walking in a dream, a bizarre dream, a dream that I wish I will wake up from any minute and will find myself back in a familiar place. Instead, the dream keeps becoming even more bizarre and incomprehensible. What is comforting though, is that after spending an entire day of living through this crazy unfamiliar dream, I can return back to my familiar bed in the room of my childhood home, a bed whose musky smell I remember and whose little quirky bumps my back knows of and automatically aligns itself to avoid them.