July 1, 2013: Best Actor? Nasseer, By Far

Naseeruddin ShahThis week Julie is just brimming over with an accumulation of Naseeruddin Shah film magic.  I’m just going to get out of the way.  It’s a natural reaction, in my opinion…evidence of my own mania for the man, here.

Julie M:  I continue to be impressed with Naseeruddin Shah.  I’ve seen, what, eight or nine films with him now, and I want more!  [just counted, and actually I’ve seen him in 19 films!] The last two just reached out and slapped me across the face, they were that good.

Thank you, thank you, thank you for including Parzania in the latest box! I was totally gobsmacked by that film, and your man Naseerji was simply stunning in it. Trailer here. Wow.

Jenny K:  I did warn you…he can be quite habit-forming.  Ought to have some sort of label at the beginning of each film, or something.

Julie M:  Parzania (2007) is the story of a Parsi family caught up in the religious riots of 2002 in Ahmedabad, Gujarat. Cyrus (Naseeruddin Shah) is a middle-class, educated movie projectionist with a wife, Shernaz (Sarika), and two children, a daughter (Pearl Barsiwala) and a son named Parzan (Parzan Dastur). Parzan is a typical ten-year-old, fooling around and dreaming of a land he calls Parzania, where the buildings are made of chocolate and you can do whatever you want. They befriend a visiting American named Allan (Corin Nemec), who is escaping from a troubled life and is looking for answers by studying Gandhi’s teachings in India. The family is close and life is good.

One day while Cyrus is at work a joint action between a radical Hindu political party and the local police in retaliation for a Muslim leads to the majority Muslim population in the family’s neighborhood getting attacked by a gang of thugs while the police watch. Their housing block is torched and citizens are murdered; in the melee Parzan is separated from his mother and sister. Despite obstacles Cyrus eventually reunites with his wife and daughter but Parzan remains missing. Allan finds the family in a refugee camp and takes them in.

parzaniacover

The rest of the film is the family’s search both for meaning and their missing son, and the horror of being caught up in a brutal war between religio-political factions, neither of which they affiliate with. It is based on a true story.

This is not an easy film to watch. The riot scenes are graphic and horrific, and there is a courtroom scene at the end that had me spellbound while tears were welling up. As a parent I cannot imagine anything worse than being forcibly separated from my children with no knowledge of where they are or if they are even alive, and the pain was portrayed in an absolutely realistic, compelling and heart-rending way by the two lead actors. Best thing I’ve ever seen Naseerji do, and I was unfamiliar with Sarika (later looked her up–ex-wife of Kamal Hasan) but am suitably impressed.

The film is mostly in English, but the bits in Urdu and Hindi are about 15-20% of the film and are not subtitled. I would have liked to have gotten the full impact of the movie–I can figure out some Hindi but this must have been some kind of dialect because it just sped by me, and I have no Urdu at all. Nevertheless, even with only 85% of the dialogues in my language it still was a heart-stoppingly powerful film. No wonder it was banned in Gujarat when it came out: it’s not something the tourist board would want spread around, and it makes the police and politicians look corrupt, incompetent and heartless.

I could say so much more about the film’s pacing and cinematography, which are both perfect, but this has gotten too long already. Although obviously the true story has been dramatized, the historical facts are correct, heartbreakingly so. The damage and waste of humanity occasioned by these constant religious wars is really keeping India from any kind of progress. Gandhi must be spinning in his grave.

This is definitely one I will recommend to all–amazing piece of filmmaking. It is available free on YouTube here. 

Julie M:  The other film was 3 Deewarein (3 Walls, 2003)…and, true to Naseerji’s form, it was an excellent one. To me, possibly Naseeruddin Shah’s best performance of what I’ve seen so far (although he was really good in Sparsh as well).

Absolutely unbelievable character drama with four superior lead performances. Trailer here (subtitled).

Brief plot summary: Jaggu (Jackie Shroff) and Nagya (Nagesh Kukunoor) are both prison inmates, convicted of murder and awaiting execution. Jaggu freely admits to killing his wife in a jealous rage, but Nagya insists that the murder he is accused of (also his wife) was an accident. They are joined one day by a transfer prisoner, Ishaan (Naseeruddin Shah), who is also convicted of murder and is a serial escapee. His story is that he too killed accidentally, tripping during a bank robbery and the gun went off, killing a pregnant woman. The three men form a bond of friendship in this somewhat experimental prison where the goal of the warden (Gulshan Grover) is rehabilitation rather than warehousing.

Naseerji 70's ChicJenny K:  I think I first fell in love with Naseerji when he popped up with that silly curly wig! Oh, my…

Julie M:  Into this milieu walks Chandrika (Juhi Chawla), a documentary filmmaker who is doing a project on death row prison inmates. She asks to interview these three (the only ones in the prison set to die) for her film, to raise awareness about the true face of crime in India. Over the course of the interviews we learn more about these men, and about Chandrika as well, who we find out is undertaking the project as a way to escape her abusive husband. Meanwhile, Ishaan is planning yet another escape and Nagya is hoping for a pardon at the prison’s annual Republic Day celebration, while Jaggu is resigned to his ultimate fate.

The characterizations are sharp and the way stories unfold are unexpected. Naseeruddin Shah’s Ishaan is a charming con man whose brain you can almost see ticking away, while Jackie Shroff’s Jaggu is a sensitive cook and poet, who speaks almost entirely in English. Nagya’s twitchiness seemed a bit forced for the purpose of the character development, but it worked. Juhi Chawla ably breaks out of her Manic Pixie Dream Girl image to portray a very complex character on her own, not merely the vehicle for the exploration of the mens’ stories or a potential love interest for one of them. Here’s a key scene with her husband. 

Jenny K:  I was really impressed by Nagesh Kukunoor who was the writer and director of the film, too. I think it was his third film, and unlike most directors who put themselves in their own films, actually has reason to do so. Not your typical film hero, but gives a reasonably effective performance, when up against Jackie’s practiced film hero style and Naseer’s undeniable charm, you wouldn’t necessarily expect it of Nagesh.

Julie M:  Reasonably effective, but I thought his character was the least thought-through of all of the prisoners. Even Nasty Gautam had more to work with.

One thing that confused me: (spoilers) Was Ishaan really responsible for those other 2 murders, or did he just confess to them in order to avoid being shot by Chandrika? It was never really made clear.(end spoilers)

Jenny K:  I don’t know…been a while since I watched it…now where did I put my copy…

Julie M:  The prison itself, through the cinematography, becomes a character in the drama. Fully half the scenes are shot at night, and the moonlight effects are riveting. One of my favorite scenes is an interview between Chandrika and Ishaan that takes place in a workshop where the prisoners block-print designs on saris, and it is absolutely an authentic-looking studio for that kind of work; the bright colors of the saris hanging to dry contrast with the crumbling stone walls of the prison and are evocative on so many metaphorical levels. Just beautiful. The final shot of the film (don’t worry, it’s not a spoiler), where you see an aerial view of the prison that previously you had only known from corners and courtyards, is absolutely spectacular and cleverly in keeping with the nature of the plot denouement. Stunning.

Just when you think you have this film figured out, something happens to totally upend your preconceived notions. In a good way, every time. All my thumbs (and you know I am ALL thumbs!) are up on this one, and I’ve even borrowed a few from other people so I can put them up too.  Available free on YouTube, albeit without subtitles. 

Julie M:  So let’s talk crossover potential.  Why has he not done many films in this country, or in Britain?  Is Irrfan Khan so much a better actor that he gets all those parts? (I’m thinking The Namesake and Life of Pi in particular, but also ones like Slumdog Millionaire and The Darjeeling Limited)  What does Naseerji get…The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (bad film:  I didn’t actually see him in that), Monsoon Wedding (OK, that was a good film and he rocked it) and Today’s Special, which, despite how good he was, was small and formulaic?  What gives?

Jenny K:  Irrfan’s got a better agent, maybe?  Or maybe chooses better directors to work with, or perhaps, better known directors…no, that doesn’t quite work as both have worked with Mira Nair, but maybe it’s “frequency equals recognizability”?  Irrfan has done three features with her, and one short, (The Namesake, Salaam Bombay, New York I Love You (where he successfully convinced me he was deeply in love with Natalie Portman, of all people!) and a short (Migration), against Naseerji only doing Monsoon Wedding with her…plus working with Ang Lee couldn’t have hurt Irrfan’s recognition factor, either.

Nasserji’s choice of The Great New Wonderful doesn’t stand up quite as universally appealing a crossover vehicle as Irrfan’s choices.  Not that I mean to insult that film’s director, Danny Leiner.  It was an interesting small film with a nice ensemble, and I loved the chemistry he established between our boy and Sharat Saxena, though as almost all of those scenes were subtitled, the two of them, as a pair, didn’t make it into this trailer.  Either way, both are fabulous actors and deserve to be American household names…but considering the basis of US media fame these days, without their own reality shows, this probably won’t be likely.  Sigh.  I don’t really want to have my favorites sell out that way, in any case.

Except a teeny tiny part of me that wants to see Hrithik Roshan blow the socks off of the rest of the celebs on Dancing with the Stars.

Feb. 7, 2012: Hravished by Hrithik, Part 2 – Mission Kashmir & Guzaarish

Having survived Super Sunday, we are back with two more do-not-miss experiences with this month’s favorite hero, Hrithik Roshan that just wouldn’t fit into the last post.  Think of this as a post-tailgate party…and excuse the Super Bowl allusions, because Julie seems to have caught the fever, seeing as her city of residence is hosting it this year.

 

Julie MMission Kashmir (2000) was…WOW. So well done, I almost didn’t notice the excessive violence.  Here’s the trailer.

Brief plot: Sanjay Dutt is Inayat Khan, a police officer in Kashmir, which has been torn by civil war for decades. An evil revolutionary leader (Puru Rajkumar) has forced the city’s doctors to stop treating injured police and their families, and this prohibition leads Khan’s son to die after an accident. In his grief, Khan leads his troops to massacre everyone in the home where the revolutionary is hiding out, except for one boy, Altaaf, who Khan reluctantly adopts to please his grieving wife (Sonali Kulkarni). The boy learns to love the Khans but eventually finds out that Khan murdered his family, and runs away only to fall in with, and be raised by, a SUPER evil terrorist (Jackie Shroff).

Ten years later Altaaf (Hrithik Roshan) returns to his former home town with his terrorist cell to complete an operation called “Mission Kashmir,” and coincidentally get revenge on Khan, preferably by killing him. As part of the mission he meets up with his childhood best friend (Preity Zinta) and falls in love with her, then must choose between continuing on with his missions and stepping off for the chance for the life he thought he could never have.  Khan, meanwhile, must figure out exactly what Mission Kashmir is and stop it, while saving himself from Altaaf’s murderous intentions.

Jenny K:  I almost didn’t recognize Jackie in this one…malicious, evil eyes.  He’s almost comic-book evil in MK, isn’t he?  Not nearly so sweet as he was in Devdas or Yaadein…his Coke-can friend in that film wouldn’t recognize him.

 

Julie M:  Yes—his snarly, filthy hair really hid him—but he doesn’t hold a candle to the over-the-top cartoonish performance of Sanjay Dutt in Agneepath.  But I admit that one of the attractions for seeing Agneepath was the opportunity to see Hrithik and SD reunited as enemies, because they had such great and multi-layered chemistry in MK.  Excellent performances all around.  Here’s a clip showing a particularly tense moment, showing the quality of Hrithik’s muscles…I mean, the quality of the lead actors’ performances.

I also found, and enjoyed, plenty of what I call “beautiful-terrible” filmmaking, which I often find in director Stanley Kubrick’s work.  This is when terrible things are happening, but they are filmed so beautifully that I’m feeling several emotions at once.  Example:  in MK, there was much shooting but very little blood.  Unrealistic, I know, but it makes the viewer focus on the reasons for the violence and its implications rather than on the violence itself.  Very effective.   Agneepath, unfortunately, had a lot of terrible things that the camera dwelled on almost gleefully for effect, with no eye to the potential beauty.  For those so inclined, a serious analysis of the film can be found here.

 

Jenny K:  Maybe your attraction to the Cinema of the B-T explains why you like Mani Ratnam films…well, why both of us like his work.  Some of his films are a visual ode to violence and devastation.  Not that he’s justifying it, at all, but he is always recording something visceral and memorable about war, and how it changes and heightens everything it touches.

 

Julie M:  Mission Kashmir also had, surprisingly, a couple of great musical numbers like this one, when Hrithik’s character shows up at this TV studio he wants to take over as part of the terrorist plan, and discovers that his old friend, now a well-known TV personality, is in mid-performance.  Of course he just joins right in.

You’d think the songs would be out of place in a bloodbath film like this, but they are so well-integrated into the plot that they make a certain kind of sense, unlike the random numbers in Agneepath.

 

Jenny K:  I’m glad you mentioned the “Bumbro” number where Preity meets up with Hrithik again, it’s a classic.  MK is not my favorite film, but has some wonderful visuals. Did you see Shankar, Eshaan and Loy, playing their song in “in person” no less, at the back of the big group number?  Looked like an ad for India Disney’s Small World Show, if there was such a thing.  

Julie M:  Was that really them? I noticed that the camera spent an unusual amount of time focusing on the band and wondered if maybe it was some famous pop star, but this makes more sense. I thought that number was kind of odious and Hrithik looked sappy in it. (I also thought it was stupid the way his character was able to crash not one, but TWO dance numbers without anyone noticing.)  But I let it go, because it’s so wonderful to watch him dance.  And during the film he is often sweaty and flexy.  

I’d rate this a 4 star experience as a film, and a 5+ star experience with Hrithik.  If you’re following his career, this makes THREE films he starred in his debut year.  Between Fiza and MK, 2000 was a pretty intense year for a guy who debuted in something as silly as Kaho Naa…Pyaar Hai, which was a crowd-pleaser and may have made his name but doesn’t really show what he can do as an actor.

[the next day]

Julie M:  Saw Guzaarish (Request, 2010) tonight. Visually quite luscious, and as has also been my experience with all of the Sanjay Leela Bhansali films I’ve seen so far, a little on the slow side. Not as stylized and deathly boring as Saawariya, though.

The plot involves former illusionist (I refuse to use the term magician) and now quadriplegic Ethan Mascarenhas (Hrithik Roshan), who, on the 14th anniversary of the stage accident that crippled him, has decided he wants to end his life.

 

Jenny K:  Fourteenth?  News to me.  If you went by the flashbacks, I’d have said he hadn’t aged more than two or three years…testament to the anti-aging effects of Goan weather, I guess…hydration, ya know.

 

Julie M:  His announcement shocks everyone, particularly his nurse Sofia (Aishwarya Rai), because he has always been so lively, positive and inspirational through his popular radio program and his speaking engagements. Trouble is, euthanasia is illegal in India, so he engages his best friend (Shernaz Patel), an attorney, to argue the case for him. While the case proceeds, he also becomes mentor to a manic young man (Aditya Roy Kapoor) who wants to carry forward Ethan’s stage performances.

Aside from the beauty of the film, Hrithik’s performance (conducted easily half or more in English, and I read that more was performed in English but Hindi was dubbed into the final film for political reasons) was astonishing. And not just because he convincingly plays a quadriplegic, which I imagine is extremely difficult. No, for the first time I felt that he had really thought this character through and wasn’t just projecting a series of “types.” He was thoroughly natural, and as the character has a great sense of humor and wit, I felt that we were seeing Hrithik let go of being a movie star and finally become a real actor.

 

Jenny K:  When I first watched it, I had read it was a remake of Whose Life Is It Anyway? the stage play and later the film with Richard Dreyfuss in the lead as the paralized sculptor who can no longer practice his art.  Guzaarish definitely addresses a lot of the same issues, but of course, Bhansali feels the need to dress things up, extend them and take them out of the decidedly unglamorous location of the hospital room. 

Again, it’s disappointing that, in an Indian film, they couldn’t have the woman that Hrithik bonds with be his doctor, as Dreyfuss does with Christine Lahti in WLIIA?  The woman, in this case Aish, is demoted to his faithful nurse.  She’s also made the hypothetical love interest, unlike in the American film, where it’s compassion not love.  I don’t mean to detract from Guzaarish, I rather liked it, and as you said, it was much better than Saawariya, but I can’t help noticing this trend.

 

Julie M:  As usual, Aish and Hrithik have excellent chemistry.   This scene (no subtitles, but it’s half in English anyway) comes at the point where Sofia finds out that Ethan has petitioned for euthanasia but has not told her:  she gets all huffy and tells him that clearly he doesn’t think enough of her to tell her personally, so from this point forward she will be just his nurse, not his friend. 

Her clearly passionate Sofia, in love with Ethan but unable to express it except through her professional care for him, is finally released in this scene where she has a couple of drinks and is moved to dance.

And we also get to see Hrithik move and dance as Ethan flashes back to moments in his stage career, particularly in this dream sequence.

Jenny K:  I felt there was too little dancing and too much floating by HR.  But that may be just me wanting more of a good thing, when he’s trying so hard, and successfully, to do a dramatic role here.  Is it just me, or is Aish channeling her inner Rekha in this film?

 

Julie M:  Aditya Kapoor also does a nice job as the apprentice illusionist, although he could have used more screen time.  The DVD I saw had some deleted scenes that included a really nice one between him and Sofia, that I have no idea why it was cut because it’s greatly character-developing for them both. 

But the real star is the film’s look. The setting is Goa and 90% of the action takes place in a decaying old Portuguese mansion–a character in itself–lushly appointed with centuries of antiques, greenery and family portraits. Every time of day is captured at some point in the film–even the moments just before and at dawn–and the famous Goa beaches are also represented in a very moving scene where Ethan’s overwhelming stillness is brilliantly compensated for by juxtaposing a wide shot of him in his wheelchair with crashing ocean waves lapping at his feet. SLB is the master of gorgeous filmmaking and even if you aren’t a fan of heartstring-tuggers (and this one is definitely a weeper, albeit an upbeat one), you can easily distract yourself by admiring all the lovely cinematic technique: scenery, costumes, props, locations…and, of course, Hrithik.  A solid 3 stars from me.

And luckily it’s available free on YouTube here.  Sit back with your left-over Super Noshes, kick back and Hrelish it!

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