Parking Lot Notes: N.T.R: Kathanayakudu

An enduring aspect of Indian mass movies owes a lot to NTR, the aspect where everyone sees their hero as a divine being.

Sample this: Asia Week’s posthumous story on MGR was titled pretty much the same, a song from Kuselan harps about how cinema was the first to ‘show’ God on screen, it persists even today in the eyes of the people of Mahismati when they see Mahendra Baahubali. (also see Maya Bazar climax)

While the others in the list crafted an image playing heroic characters, NTR played the Gods themselves.

NTR is still my favorite on-screen Krishna (sorry Nitish Bharadwaj), I can exactly pinpoint when the movie Karnan (sorry Sivaji fans)  turns into the fun epic that it is, the moment NTR literally walks into the screen as Krishna (a similar scene is recreated in this movie) and of course Maya Bazar; arguably the greatest Indian film ever made (sorry Sholay fans and also looool sholay).

Sadly, NTR’s movies are not the focus points in this biopic.

The movies are just occurrences which pinpoint how great NTR the person was. Most of the dialogue is either a prophecy (which we now recognize as true) or a set-up for the sequel Mahanayakudu, which promises to trace the political life of the screen icon.

Knowing myself, I have already lost interest in the sequel. I am more interested in the man who played God and want to know more about the mythological movies, like how Daana Veera Soora Karna was shot in 43 days.

Balakrishna eases into the life of his father and the performance betters with surprising restraint  as the character ages. In-a-only-in-the-cinema-of-India-kind there is a meta moment when baby Balakrishna is born to the real Balakrishna who is playing his father and ends up naming himself!

Vidya Balan makes her Telugu debut, in a nothing much to write about already over played pillar of a support wife that most bio pics have.

While Balakrishna gets to play his father, Sumanth gets to play his grandfather Akkineni Nageswara Rao (ANR); in some portions it does feel like it is a story of these two actors lighting cigarettes, exchanging notes, reworking their careers, and collecting relief together. These are the portions that have stayed with me.


Now that you are here, why not see NTR and ANR in Lahiri Lahiri and wonder along with me, why no one is making a movie about how Maya Bazar was made!

Extra Notes

NTR and ANR featured themselves in a late career film called Chanakya Chandragupta, in which one actor called Sivaji Ganesan played Alexander the Great! I mean, yes!

Jai Mahismathi! I mean….Jai Pathalabhairavi!

First Reformed

In silence, a moving camera slowly stops at the entrance to a church; the First Reformed church in New York, the setting of Paul Schrader’s film.

The lack of camera movement is striking, the lack of music drowned by cawing-cawing creates an unsettling atmosphere; my movie mind immediately reclines to the mode of familiarity, that smug sense of the mind jumping ahead of the story.

Oh, but how wrong my movie mind was and how happy I am. It is not that I have not been wrong before, the lord knows I have but it is not often that the feeling of being defeated is accompanied by indescribable happiness.

First Reformed is nothing like anything I have ever seen.

Movies are a visual medium, meaning they communicate to us through the eyes and when that sensation is achieved, we have in our hands what is often called a visual treat.

First Reformed goes beyond all that. Schrader forgoes cinematic mastery for spare but sure-footed direction and lets his main character wrestle with the theme of the movie.

From the very beginning it concocts a headache giving mixture of hope and despair, headache giving because it confirms simply that there can be no hope without despair. But what should one do when those tasked with reigning us out in times of despair are themselves sinking in doubt?

Ethan Hawke in a career defining performance plays Reverend Ernst Toller, a former military chaplain who is now faced with convincing an environmental activist who strongly believes that we are headed for the worst of times and it is all our doing.

The restraint in film-making and lack of score, automatically puts the weight of the film on the actors and the success of the themes on the lines that they speak. Hawke is excellent and we must take time to thank the lines on his forehead, which jump from disinterest to doubt to finality of despair.

A spiritually moving and transformative film, which made me feel the truly small nature of our collective existence and how helpless we are in the great problems that we create for ourselves.

Finally, it felt like a great movie.

Vishwaroopam II: Tinkered Tailored Older Spy

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Let’s start with the ending
The thing that struck me about the first Vishwaroopam, a film for which I crossed state borders covertly to watch(much like an espionage operation) was the abruptness in the ending.


It ends with Wisam telling that there is more to the story and what we witnessed is not really ‘the end’, but it did not have the niggling hook that would keep me guessing on what the next part would explore and moreover it did not really help that Kamal himself is delivering this as exposition and not a visually striking image of say a (too use the often used) Kattappa killing Baahubali.


Even looking at the first part in a facile manner which is a spy navigating between complexities and saving the world; the film did provide enough closure.
{Bad guys plans a series of attacks on a city and a team of spies unearth and thwart the operation.}
But Vishwaroopam is not a superficial spy thriller, at least it aims to do more.

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At the core of it all is Wisam Ahmed Kashmiri, a spy who believes in his cause someone who does not treat his license to kill as target practice and is empathetic to those he might have to kill.


Case in point is the friendship between Omar Khureshi, Salim and Wisam which takes up much of the middle of the first movie and these threads need to be addressed.
(not necessary a universal requirement, but more like universal hero’s requirement)


That brings us to Vishwaroopam II, which works more as a companion piece to the first film and not as a sequel; filling in for things that better explain the Indian spy’s motivations.


While the movie does go deeper into things that were throwaways in the first film, especially effective is Wisam’s relationship with his mother.(Waheeda Rehman in a brief role, last seen in Tamil cinema in the 1956 film Alibabavum 40 Thirudargalum). Wiz temporarily returns to being Vishwanath in a teary moment dominated by Alzheimer’s (second medical ailment in the franchise after killer cancer in the Roopam I), when the movie is just about casting away the role of the dancer.


Needless to say, Kamal is on top form or is it like displaying all these nuances in half-awake mode now? The other story machinations like how Wisam became Viz are less successful, a London mission before the intermission seems like a very long stop-over before Wisam and team reach the national capital.


I love the spy films in all forms, they lend themselves to the multi dimensional entertainment, the genre comfortably accommodates modern action films like the Bourne movies, cinephile-treasures like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the wink-winks like The Kingsman, send-ups like Paul Feig’s Spy and Oscar favourites like Argo and these are only from recent memory. All of them add to and derive from the construct of the spy thriller.


Vishwaroopam II draws from all the aforementioned sub-genres and naturally the result is not a satisfying mix; for a moment it a mission-driven-race-against-the-ticking -bomb-action-film, a few scenes later it is a musing on the futility of war and even further down the run-time it is an examination of loyalty and nationalism.


There’s isn’t time for all this, boss. Omar waits with one more bomb around the corner. (A bomb around the corner would have a been a better title to this piece, #justsaying)


There simply isn’t time and it shows, the action seems too rushed and the globe-hopping locations which usually adds to the excitement and romance to these spy films here are just tailored to suit exposition dumps.


The lack of resources too very evident, with the actors limited to performing in moving cars or in an uncharacteristic hotel suite and the number of times toilets conveniently appear in this film only made me think about how constrained the production would have been ; a stark opposite to the expanse of Afghanistan which was reiterated multiple times in the first film.


As though to make up for all the above, there are genuine fun sequences in the film and director Kamal draws me in with a cracker of a title sequence which is a crash course of things past in freeze time played to new version of Nyagabagam Varugiradha.

The story is also in the telling, the nonlinearity is intact and Wisam still gets to sweat about his past. Packed with multiple “woohoo!” moments and timely call-backs to the first film (Namaz panna poriya!). In Kamal’s world even a blood splatter can dissolve into a map.

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But Omar bhai takes precedence over everything and Rahul Bose is absolutely fantastic as the villain who thinks he is the hero and wait a minute, he isn’t even in the movie till the third act.


I loved how the movie returned to the outrageous-ness of Roopam I, when he came back on screen giving Wisam something really challenging to work with, because until then Wisam was just putting bureaucrats in place with his wit.


Yes yes, I also know that the movie tries to deal with larger issues like how education is important, how war creates more problems than it can solve etc, how nationalism cannot be ‘instilled’ etc but OK this is not the blog site for all that boring stuff.

But this is the kind-off blog which will stand-up and applaud at the inane moment of the villain’s glass eye popping out and rolling on the streets of Delhi. Movies like these are hard to come by and need to be savoured probably with steaming jilebis.

Good luck Wisam! Hat-tip to Munnavar!

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The Aunty Terror Squad

FYC: Spyder

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Has there been any Hollywood movie that has influenced so many Indian filmmakers within a short while than Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight? Maybe it is about the obsession with creating an antagonist.

Oh but I’m only thinking out loud, but it could really be the next on the ‘movies-we-look-up to-for-immediate-inspiration’ after Coppola’s The Godfather.

But the Batman and Joker are already part of larger conscious because of decades of multimodal existence, making it easier for writers to evoke invested past strands and bring to life the characters; it is not the same case in a Telugu-Tamil bilingual; a genre where a master in the culinary arts would not feel out of place.

Such movies are not called masala for nothing.

The Dark Knight is a (dark) blockbuster superhero movie, the near equivalent from what we have is the south Indian mass masala.  While some of it can be considered as comic, but here the word does not refer to periodicals out of which characters leap out of.

Mass masala by itself depends much on its leading man and the story gives into him. By that very statement it means that these films are meant to work only for those who buy into the charms (or lack-of) of the star.

Which means that for the most part the writer-directors are restricted in their choice of ingredients, sometimes they have to make do with just one condiment, more often than not trick the audience by throwing garam masala in our eyes.

AR Murugadoss seems to, in my eyes at least an expert chef who can find different uses for the same ingredient.

(I am really overdoing this samayal-cinema analogy, must come to the point before things get over cooked)

Under The Influence

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I believe more than the act of being inspired by another work, it is more important to know why that particular inspirational moment worked and think before replicating it.

Spyder’s hero does what Batman wanted Lucius Fox to do, listen in on people; while the ethical ramifications of spying are superficially dealt, they provide a convincing motivation for the lead; to prevent crime before it happens.

Yes, this could be the pre-crime from Minority Report but it could also be the inversion that is seen in ARM films like making a Vijaykanth film without making a Vijaykanth film?

The hero becomes a mass hero as a reaction to personal tragedies or societal atrocities, but can he/she really still be called a hero by preventing events from happening and not let the world know?

But it isn’t really an inversion unless you follow through with the act of an unseen hero, ultimately compulsions prevail and there is a love track and so there must be songs and an overblown climactic fight which makes you forget the questions that the film tried to raise earlier.

Especially notable is when Madan Karky rhymes mosam with awesome and concludes love is eternal much like plastic.

But Spyder is still somewhere there and even these commercial elements are not without joy.

Who Wants To Be A Hero?

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Earlier in the Spyder, a scene made me reflect on an underlying theme in Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, that every person is capable of heroism, Bruce obviously states this in the concluding chapter but there are enough visual examples.

The way the common folk are involved in the events that happen to the city, not just as observers but as  active participants, they are not alienated in the good vs. evil battle nor are they just used as bait for the hero to rescue.

But why?

In Spyder’s best segment which lasts about 20 minutes, has nothing to do with Mahesh Babu  or the antagonist S J Suryah, but about common people (middle aged ladies in this case) finding courage to do what they would not normally do and lend a helping hand beyond possible imagination.

It worked totally for me and convinced that this involvement of the nameless with whom we can identify, add to how we receive a film.

Yes yes, S J Suryah character and how he seems to have played it tries to match Heath Ledger’s Joker in every step, but then there is more to the Dark Knight trilogy.

Only if we choose to see, hence for your consideration.

 

 

 

Parking Lot Notes: Thupparivaalan

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It begins with the light of a matchstick, an aide in a search or the dispeller of darkness.

That is what essentially a detective story is about; the search for answers and the journey into the unknown.

The detective, our guide or sometimes a co-traveller.

While the opening statement might seem grandiose, this was the first thing that struck (like that match) while watching Mysskin’s Thupparivalan. A detective also fits the mould of the director’s heroes who are seekers.

Fitment is also found in the casting of Vishal (also the producer) as the tall, loner with a bent towards the martial arts as Kaniyan, the detective of the film, but movie making is not just casting.

Thinking through the course of the movie (which the movie allows you to do once you catch it by the flow,which would not be tough if you had been living with a steady supply of detective novels) made me wonder why there was something missing in this homage to the creations of Conan Doyle.

Everything seems to be in place, which by itself is a cause of worry.

While Kaniyan’s room looks like it has been vacated by the BBC and not a living room that would suit the city in which this movie is set, the detective and his trusted sidekick seem to advertising for Indian Terrain in the meanwhile.

I dwell on these extraneous factors only because the characters are flat, whether this is a conscious decision is something best left to the maker.

A character being flat in a film, which more or less depends on the interest created by that lead character, is what I deduct to be the problem.  Especially when your lead is a character that is a shade of the great detective (Sherlock, as we speak is one of the most assumed characters on the screen).

Great ‘Holmes’ of the past have been played by dramatic actors, this would include Jeremy Brett who made the role his own, portrayals since have been either variations of what Brett did or to do what Brett did not do and hence stand out.

The eccentric nature of the Holmes-ian character cries out loud for an expressive actor who can control his/her expressions, which is why I insisted on the word ‘dramatic’; that was the big miss and thus bringing down the levels of excitement.

Sensation and excitement are two keys to the same room in a detective story; Thupparivalan on the other hand is locked in another room filled with Mysskian tick-tock henchmen, beautiful pick pockets and a climax that would reiterate that we already have the best locales for filming. It could be great cinema, but is it engaging?

The Sherlock Holmes homage pool is an ever-deepening one and whether Thupparivalan enriches this pool is something that needs to be seen, but for Tamil Cinema we now have a mainstream detective and I have Arrol Corelli’s teaser music on loop.