Monday, October 22, 2012

Maatraan and English Vinglish: Cinematic Vicissitudes


The review bug bites this author after he caught up with two of Kollywood's recent releases...

Maatraan - conjoined to confound and contrive

Basic science stipulates that matter can neither be created nor destroyed, and can only be transformed from one form to another.

In Maatraan, director K V Anand turns this dictum on its head by employing all the ingredients for a gripping blockbuster — a leading hero in a dual role, an upcoming starlet, a plot involving a nefarious researcher and exotic locations (I ain't talking about the songs alone), A-list technicians and an established production house to boot — and comes up with a product that can at best be described as nothingness.

Of glamorous translators and wealthy heirs...
So, we have conjoined twins Agilan and Vimalan (Surya), heirs to an energy drink organisation constructed by their ambitious scientist dad (Sachin Khedekar), with contrasting personalities. While Vimalan is studious, a teetotaller and romanticises socialism, Agilan is the eternal flirt, orders KFC chicken to curb a strike by their factory employees and a dipsomaniac. The heroine (Kajal Agarwal), meanwhile, is a translator (yes, you read it right) in the organisation; while it's anybody's guess as to her role's use, an element of utility, in a drawling twist in the latter half, sees her putting to use her lingual skills.

So much for character building.

A blow-hot, blow-cold narrative, non-invasive editing, particularly in the latter half, and irreverence to logic results in two fatalities: interest in the movie and an all-out assault on human sensibilities. Maatraan proceeds without much ado, with layer after layer introduced in its plot, perhaps almost disregarding the viewer's cognitive abilities. It follows a fomula set by the director in his earlier ventures: establish the love angle between the lead pair first (Ayan, Ko), kill an important character prior to the interval to infuse interest (Ayan, Ko) and introduce incongruous sequences that masquerade as harbingers of suspense (Ayan).

However, the first half is entirely Surya’s; he fills the screen with his presence, and the novelty of his character ensures that there aren’t many dull moments. Kajal Agarwal, unsurprisingly, serves as the movie’s eye-candy. Actor Tara — perhaps, last seen in Kollywood in Mani Ratnam’s Nayakan — makes a refreshing return after an interminably long hiatus, as the mother to the twins. Incidentally, the movie marked the 25th anniversary of its release only recently.
                                                                    

No surprises in Harris Jayaraj's soundtrack
Save for the track Rettai Kadhire... Harris Jayaraj's songs in Maatraan simply lack freshness.


Now for some questions:
·       Prior to Maatraan’s release, hype over the conjoined twin angle whipped up frenzy such that you may be forgiven if you believed that it was the next best thing in Tamil cinema. The angle, though, despite being the movie’s highlight, and also its biggest plus, lacks conviction. Couldn’t we have done with a single Surya?
·       Do sozzled people who meet each other for the first time quote Kalil Gibran?
·       Why is the villain, obviously a powerful and ruthless person, afflicted with selective amnesia when it comes to dealing with those prying on his secrets? And do investigative reporters spill their findings to all and sundry?
·       A nutrition food scandal in India linked to a doping scandal of a former Soviet bloc in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics? Seriously? I mean, really?
·       And pray what was the rationale for the song sequence bang in the middle of the investigative trail of the lead pair? That too when they are on the verge of a major breakthrough. Not so elementary, my dear Watson.

What happened to the inverted pyramid – the working principle of journalism – probably not alien to Anand. After all, wasn't Ko (technically a rehash of State of Play) set amid the background of a newspaper office?

  
                  ****                                               ****                                                 ****

English Vinglish (Tamil): Superhero Sridevi

English Vinglish: Scores for its authentic portrayal of the feminine
In The King’s Speech, George VI (Colin Firth) overcomes a stuttering speech disorder, helped by a drama artiste who, all along, poses to be a speech therapist. English Vinglishwith the premise of a demure housewife seeking her calling and discovering a new inner self — isn’t much different.
Sorry for the spoiler. Had to be told (at least now that it is weeks after it’s release).


The protagonist of EV, Shashi (Sridevi) — returning to Kollywood after the 1989 Rajnikanth starrer Naan Adimai Illai — is the typical Indian housewife: all hard work sans recognition; nay, not even acknowledgement. Her daughter turns squeamish at her conversing with her school principal in Tamil. Her husband’s compliment, at his charitable best, is “my wife was born to make laddoos”. She is a picture of insecurity, that is, until an opportunity comes her way.


Fears that this could be just another saas-bahu
soap dissipate when Shashi's mother-in-law goads her to make a trip to the US for her niece's wedding arrangements. “If I were you, I'd be all packed up, waiting for my visa,” she says assuring that her daughter-in-law's absence wouldn't be missed. Her husband (Adil Hussain) has just asked her mockingly what would she be doing in the US of A, the land of dreams, given her poor English.

Thus begins Shashi’s serendipitous tumble, borrowing a line from Lewis Carrol's Alice in Wonderland, into a world where even little kids speak English, where articulating your purpose of visit can be as challenging as scaling the Everest, and where roads aren’t named Arcot or Mount Road.


More than anything else, the singular standout factor in EV is its authentic portrayal of the feminine – something that the Indian ‘woods’ have not seen for a pretty long time. Most of the characters have been fleshed out such that viewers may not discern at their portrayal; hence, the possibility of encountering thoughts like “chill, after all it’s a movie” are remote. 
                                                                             
Desi 'Mind your English'
You’d be forgiven if you felt the English class where Shashi enrolls, a motley group of individuals comprising a Chinese hairdresser, a Pakistani cabbie, a chef from France, was straight out of the sets of the TV series Mind Your English. However, the movie manages to steer clear of jingoism of all kinds, as is wont with many a plot involving Indians abroad. The steady stream of humour, of the cerebral kind, ensures theatre-goers need not look around for interesting neighbours.

Sridevi packs in a fantastic performance that is bound to sweep viewers of their feet. The gamut of emotions she portrays — as the shattered housewife in dire need of solace, as the woman who begins to open up and is on an inner discovery and the woman who shows some spunk — only leaves us wanting for more. A heart-warming tale of the Indian woman, EV also features a brief but interesting cameo by Ajith Kumar (Amitabh Bachchan in Hindi), a soundtrack that's worth listening to repeatedly and a surprisingly short running time (under 2 hours). (Is it only me or why does the title track in EV sound eerily similar to Shakira’s Waka Waka?)

Watch out for Ajith's interesting cameo
On one plane, though, EV seems reminiscent of R K Narayan's The Dark Roomin which a housewife unable to bear her husband’s philandering ways, leaves home, with maternal love ultimately drawing her back. Narayan had then dedicated the book to "Women’s Lib".

Which begs the question: why is it that we have actresses donning such defining roles only well past their prime?