Thursday, August 10, 2006

Koopa Mandookam

Once upon a time, there lived a frog in a well; he thought that all was well, and that the well was the best. He wallowed to his heart's content, until he met a turtle who told him about the Indian Ocean.

I can't help feeling most of our film-critics and fans are sorta like the frog in the well. Any semblance of competence is immediately hailed with the highest order of praise; mediocrity is seldom recognized for what it is, and I'd better not get started on our many incompetent actors.

Look at Amitabh Bachchan, for instance. He is the biggest superstar the country has ever seen (at least in terms of longetivity, if nothing else). He is also an awesome entertainer, as KANK proves yet again. However, he - fairly or unfairly - receives rave reviews for whatever he does - TV shows, dumb movies such as 'Waqt', and even dumber ads (the new Dairy Milk ad is one of the dumbest I have ever seen). However, try to list out some world-class performances from him - and you have zilch. None of his performances - not even ONE - can hold a candle to the ones that great actors like Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Marlon Brando, Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri, Mohan Lal and Kamal Hassan have delivered in abundance. And before you object, 'Black' was definitely not world-class; it was merely an overhyped, over-praised effort by the Big B to reach the acting heights he once used to easily surpass ('Milee', 'Abhimaan' etc). Where a little subtlety would have gone a long way, Bachchan tragically sought to overact.

Let's look at another superstar: SRK. His performance in 'Swades' was much-praised. Pray, what exactly did he do in that movie that was so great? For one of the few times, in a career spanning more than 10 years, Khan was not himself (ok, to be fair, he was more than that; he was definitely competent). Does that define a great performance? Of the other two Khans, one cannot act if his life depended upon it, and the other Khan has somehow (admirably) resisted Bollywood's tendency to destroy what little talent one has (Bachchan and SRK are prime examples).

Mind you, this is not an attack on superstars; if so, I'd have attacked the other great superstar of our times: Rajnikant. However, Rajni at least makes no pretension about his acting skills. He's made up his mind to give his fans a rollicking time in the aisles, and he does exactly that - admittedly with a lot less sophestication than the Bachchans and the Khans, but with a lot more success. And I'm no big fan of Rajni myself: I thought that 'Chandramukhi' was a poorly directed, and even more poorly-enacted miserable rehash of what was originally a terrific premise.

Some of the actors (and not stars) I do admire, and whose movies I look forward to, are:

Kamal Hassan: One has to admit, this guy has guts. Despite several heart-wrenching box-office failures (I still can't believe that 'Anbae Sivam' flopped so badly), the guy keeps on ticking. And once a year, he comes out with some path-breaking cinema as well. He is getting to old to continue with his on-screen antics, though. Judging by his latest movies, there is a terrific screenplay-writer and director lurking in him, that soon ough to outrace the actor in him.

Naseeruddin Shah & Om Puri: After a terrific performance in last year's 'Iqbal', Naseer popped up in 'Krissh' in a wierdo act that was almost painful to watch. As somebody remarked elsewhere (I forgot who), they ought to pay this guy some money every year so that he doesn't have to do crap like this for monetary reasons. Om Puri isn't as selective as Naseer - he appears in a lot of crappy stuff. But whenever Om chooses to do a 'Bollywood Calling' or a 'Dhoop', one realizes what a terrific actor he really is.

Mohan Lal, who seems to have got his act back together. For the last 5 years, the guy had been doing ONLY C-grade moustache-twirling-rowdy movies. After several flops, he seems to have come to his senses. And o-boy! - 'Thanmatra' was some comeback alright!

Aamir Khan, who seems to have made up his mind to do some sensible cinema. Despite the occasional Fanaa, this actor is - for the most part - dependable.

Kareena Kapoor & Rani Mukherjee: I have maintained from the onset that Kareena can act, despite snide comments from all and sundry (my mom can't stand her). 'Chameli', 'Dev' and now 'Omkara' continue to prove me right. Rani, on the other hand, has been terrific right from her 'Rani Ki Aayegi Baraat' days, and I have always liked her infectiousness (yes, even during her Govinda-days). Hopefully, she will continue to straddle the 'Black's with the 'KANK's.

Atul Kulkarni & Manoj Bajpai: Kulkarni outshone even Kamal Hassan in 'Hey Ram' - he just dominated all the scenes he was in. And hey, am I the only one who thinks Kulkarni's fiery rendition of 'Sarfaroshi ki Tamanha' was the best scene in RDB? Bajpai, on the other hand, seems to be going nowhere. After fiery performances in 'Satya', 'Shool' and 'Kaun' - all from the RGV camp, mind you - the actor seems to have lost his touch. But there's no doubting the man's versitality.

Vikram, who spent years acting as Mammootty's driver-cum-assistant (the poor chap was picked solely to dance! Vikram must be thanking his stars that Mammootty has two left legs) before graduating right to the front of the class with Bala's 'Sethu'. Ever since, he has never looked back. Today, he is one of the few actors to successfully straddle meaningful cinema with the run-of-the-mill stuff - who else could carry off the dark 'Pithamagan' (which is one of the finest Indian movies I have seen) with the same panache as the over-the-top, flamboyant 'Anniyan'? Btw, Vikram's colleague and co-actor in 'Pithamagan' is no mean actor himself.

Konkona Sen, who is JUST AWESOME. So far, she hasn't put a single step wrong in any of her performances - be it as the rustic UP wife in 'Omkara', the South Indian housewife in 'Mr & Mrs Iyer' or the schizhophenic child-woman in '15 Park Avenue'. And on top of it, she's barely 8 movies old. In fact, let me stick my neck out here and say that she just might prove to be the best actor in this list - there, I have done it!

Of course, there are a whole lot of other great actors out there: Paresh Rawal, Mammootty and Shabana Azmi, just to name a few. However, the actors in them seem to be on vacation! Rawal seems to be content fooling around perpetually, Mammootty seems to have gone crazy (what else do you call a 57-year old triple National Award winner who is perpetually dancing - or rather, trying to - dance - with girls barely past 20?) and Azmi has been content for far too long playing the same role over and over again. Of course, they are all great actors, and just might bounce back!!

Monday, August 07, 2006

Omkara vs Kaliyattam

Went and watched 'Omkara' yesterday. An encore from Vishal Bharadwaj after 'Maqbool', though I did think the latter featured better performances all around. But then, I also think that the former is directorially a better effort. I couldn't help comparing 'Omkara' to the Malayalam adaptation of 'Othello' (named 'Kaliyattam') as I watched the events unfold on screen. Here is a direct comparison of the principal players in both the movies.

Vishal vs. Jayaraj: I'd like to claim an honourable draw here. While 'Omkara' is steeped in the milleau of rural UP, 'Kaliyattam' is based on the fascinating backdrop of temple artforms and the beliefs surrounding it. Both directors were equally successful in integrating the premise into the backdrop convincingly; both directors deserve full marks in choosing an unconventional cast and making them perform exceptionally well. However, I felt that Vishal scored slightly better in rounding off his characters better; Jayaraj was guilty of ignoring the other characters (look at how well Vivek Oberoi's Firangi is moulded, for instance). Vishal also dishes out nuances (the green tinge for Saif, the black shawl for Othello) that enhance the overall appeal of his version.
Verdict: Vishal has the slightest of edges.

Ajay Devgun vs. Suresh Gopi: As the dark Moor, Ajay is as grim as ever. Despite tantalising glimpses of the affection Omkara feels for Dolly (this is Devgun at his most romantic, I think!), Ajay fails in conveying the depth of Omi's love for Dolly. Moreover, Ajay has done this sort of thing far too often, and he merely performs upto everybody's expectations. Suresh Gopi, on the other hand, vastly derided by one and all as an actor who could do only the gun-touting, foul-mouthed act, put in a humdinger of a performance as the deformed Perumalayan (Othello) who feels that the trust he placed in Thamara (Desdemona) has been betrayed. Gopi's love for Thamara is worn on his sleeve, and his sense of betrayal is all the more effective for it.
Verdict: This one goes to Gopi.

Kareena vs. Manju Warrier: I admit I might not be objective here, but this one is a cinch. Kareena puts in an amazing performance as Dolly. The gaiety, bewilderment and anguish are all conveyed with finesse. One wonders how an actress can be so effective in one movie, and equally lacklustre in others (read 'Khushi', 'Main Prem Ki..' etc). However, despite Kareena's sterling effort, she is no match for the natural performer that Manju Warrier was (she no longer acts). To run the risk of repeating myself, Manju was sheer magic on celluloid - what else can one say about an actor who even managed to overshadow MohanLal ('Kanmadam')? 'Kaliyattam' was but one of her minor roles, and she shone in even that.
Verdict: Kareena, despite a fine performance, is no match for Manju.

Saif vs. Lal: Saif has put in a lot of effort to get under the skin of Ishwar Tyagi. Be it the rough dialect, the chipped yellow teeth, or the crafty grin - Saif Ali Khan ensures that his persona never ventures even a peep. Particularly noteworthy is that pivotal scene where Omi passes him over as successor; Langda betrays his emotion only by a flicker of the eye. Envy, sadness and finally rage play across his eyes, and he smiles a trifle bitterly. Lal, on the other hand, was terrific alright; but subsequent movies have diluted the impact that 'Kaliyattam' had created. Lal perhaps made a better Iago, but Saif had the tougher act to carry off. The only area where Saif failed, I felt, was in not making Langda repulsive; Lal's Paniyan was downright repulsive.
Verdict: Saif scores over Lal for his sheer transformation into Ishwar Langda Tyagi.

All the other protagonists in 'Omkara' - in particular, Vivek Oberoi and Konkona Sen (who is just remarkable) - score over their counterparts in 'Kaliyattam'. Oberoi finally turns in a noteworthy performance after 'Company'; his grief and anguish are palpable. Konkona seems utterly incapable of being bad - she just seems to belong with all the other women there, that you don't even recognize her for a minute - and that, is the ultimate compliment.

The few downsides of 'Omkara' are in the commercial devices it resorts to. Bipasha is a huge misfit and so are those stupid item numbers (what a figure she has, though!). Konkona's Kali-act was also a bit too predictable, I thought. Overall, a tremendous movie though.