The Anatomy of a Great Actor

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The Tree of Life Review

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The Tree of Life (2011) is not an entertaining movie. It’s utterly realistic, short on explanations, deliberative, existential. The film begins with its premise, of death. The universe, natural landmarks, oceans, volcanoes, cells. Everything separating, clashing, gushing, dividing, merging, forming.

One cannot directly dive into the story in this movie. First, it becomes an issue of understanding the filmmaker’s vision. His preferred way of presenting information to us. Which is not primarily through narrative, but rather through images– a series of remarkable, meaningful, often breathtaking, images. As much as one contemplates the story, one contemplates how it is presented.

The use of the camera and its angles are unique. The camera is very dynamic, always moving, and the angles, unusual. It creates a feeling as though we are moving through the character’s lives, observing them, without their awareness. It makes everything more natural, because the odd, disordered angles that concentrate on specific things, seems very similar to the way we use our eyes. How we tend to pay attention to specific objects, and its details, rather than observing the bigger picture. At the same time, the dynamic movement which follows the character’s movements, who also happen to be constantly moving around, creates a sense of attachment to them, as we are repeatedly urged to see things through their view.

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Periodically throughout the film, there is a low-angle shot. It forces us to reconsider things from a new position, a new perspective. It also feels like a reminder, of how small we are in comparison to everything else. As the film progresses, we also progress, through different landscapes, and different eras of the world. We are made to attain a greater perspective, a grand perspective, yet without detaching from the feeling of loss, which we are reminded of through the narration. The narration is an existential one, people trying to understand loss, through which they also appear to be understanding bonds, and love. But the narration, is bare minimum. Its the images, which are telling us the story.

The lighting is bright and realistic, but with very little sunlight, and often resembling a documentary. There is an abundance in green, the characters generally being outdoors. The crispness of the colors, the emphasis on nature, adds a harsh quality to the vision of the movie. A slight feeling of insecurity, but also of freedom. The seasons, all seem to be the same. Comforting memories are characterized by a greater use of yellow lighting.

The sounds and the music, just as the use of the camera, are disorienting, alarming, threatening. Telling us that what’s happening, is natural, yet dramatic, and difficult… as death. What loss feels like is portrayed through the struggles in nature, through the natural cycles in all existing things.

The movie shifts, from fragmented memories, to nature and existence, and again to memories. Not all memories are alarming, some are comforting, calming, even fun. Until when one sees, the reality of the situation. This family, which appeared perfectly happy until now, does not seem so happy anymore. It’s not a household devoid of love, but one of rules and boundaries. Of pressure, and intimidation. Everything is enforced, even love and affection. One feels, as those boys do, worried, frightened, and unsure. Their desire to be free, from the restrictions with which they live. Their mother, a flying fairy, of goodness and love. Then comes horror. These boys are not prepared for the horrors life has to show them. They’re good at heart, and wish to remain good; protected, yet curious to know more.

Their father is very strict, disciplined and keen to teach his sons. One can tell he has high expectations from them and wants to make sure they live up to it. But his harsh demeanor, his aggression, is hard for these boys to handle, they react better to the loving compassion of their mother. Grown men in pain have a hard time showing love to vulnerable children.

The boy who died– there is a strong impression throughout the movie, of how out of place he feels, almost all the time. The way he observes his world, in doubt and hesitation. One can sense the comforting he needs but is unable to ask for. It is clear that he desires to be accepted and loved for what he is, and not what his father wants to make him into. The rules and warnings constrict him, make him feel helpless, and unwanted. His first feeling, which doesn’t involve self-judgement, appears to be longing, when a girl throws her long brown hair.

Then, he witnesses death. He thinks about death, and what it would be like to lose someone he loves. The movie, and their life, appears to take on a more and more gloomy nature. This little boy, is too young for existential thoughts, but he has them. He talks to God, prays to God, then questions God, unable to understand why things are the way they are. He’s fascinated with his mother. It’s not that his father is unable to see his sensitivity, or his need for care, but he doesn’t know how to provide it. His father is frightened to be or to appear weak, even to his own children. The disorientation of the boy’s character grows, and takes on more intensity. Meaning he seeks, but is unable to find.

Their mother is as helpless as they are. A homemaker, she stays quiet during family dinners, as her husband intimidates their children. Isn’t it utterly devastating that these boys feel freedom and happiness, only when a member of the family is no longer there? That they feel like a guest in their own home? When a home becomes a personal prison? His return, the return of hopelessness? When one is so utterly desperate, that death seems to be the only solution? Either his death, or one’s own?

The boy’s strange attraction to his mother, presents a more complicated view of him. It becomes clear, that the attachment he feels for her, is too intense, and possibly a little unnatural. Is he clinging to her more, for his need of affection?

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His frustration is slowly transforming into rage. So much rage, that he even starts having outbursts in front of his father. His father dumbfounded, for he has no clue, of the kind of effect he has on him. Utter and complete constriction, the farthest edges of helplessness he now feels. Yet, a slight feeling of satisfaction, of peace, of believing in his bond with God.

The father’s remorse, we get a view of it, in the beginning of the movie and at the end. But how we see his remorse, changes in between the two. And slowly the movie quietens, calms, into greater peace. The music changes, the fear reduces. This is where mourning is completed, and wounds start to heal. Where, somehow, you start to find hope once again. Albeit, not without feeling lost every now and again. The vast, barren landscapes generally fulfill the feelings of being lost in this movie.

And we return to creation once again. To flowing hot lava, the dust storms of outer space, a plead to their creator, for eternal guidance. This is where endings and beginnings merge, in a sort of beginning of time. Where light shared, illuminates the paths of many. The endless journey, continues.

The movie, which began in chaos and upheaval, its sounds, alarming and worrying, ends, in en inexplicable peace and content. A kind of divine conclusion, to hurts once felt. A triumph of forgiveness and compassion, and the reuniting of loved ones, in a place where there is no fear. Where we get to embrace them, and ourselves. Our self, the young and afraid one, and the old and afraid one. And finally, we’re left on our own, for that last journey, the last few steps, into eternity.  THIS is a story of acceptance.

Watch this movie, only if you feel it would resonate with you. It’s too unique and abstract I think for most people, and in most situations. It requires intent and a specific type of mindset. Watch it only if you found this description of it meaningful.

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Arjun Reddy Review

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I was recently bashed on social media by some Telugu film fanatics for being unfamiliar with this movie. They considered this ignorance of apparently “one of the most controversial films in Telugu cinema history” nothing short of blasphemy. Though not overtly spoken, I could sense that these young lads were in awe with this film and even saw it as a matter of taking pride in their regional cinema… a some kind of “gem” that demonstrates the progressiveness of Telugu cinema and it’s ability to compete with other regional cinemas.

Placing too much meaning on a single film? I think so too. I will attempt an unbiased and objective view of the film. Lots of spoilers, so you may want to avoid if you plan to see the film. First things first, the film is way too long. It could easily been made into two-and-a-half hours and nothing of importance would have been left out. I felt exhausted and drained in the last half hour and I just couldn’t wait for it to be over.

The entire film centers around the story of the male lead, Arjun Reddy, as you easily guessed from the title. Arjun Reddy is an intelligent and successful medical student. He tops his college in grades, is more knowledgeable on subjects than any of his peers, and therefore is regarded in high esteem by teachers and administrators. Arjun Reddy is also an aggressive, selfish, slightly psychotic bully who terrorizes the entire student base, and even the dean of the college. He has a small loyal group of measly weak friends whom he can easily manipulate. He constantly threatens people into doing things and everyone is so frightened of him and his anger, that they never try to oppose him in anything.

The entire premise starts when Arjun, who was prepared to leave the college and end his entire educational and professional career because he is too vain and stubborn to do anything logical, changes his mind after seeing a sweet, naive-looking chubby girl start at his college. It’s only natural for dominant aggressive men to prey on sweet looking, easily impressionable girls.

While we are given more than an ample portrayal of Arjun Reddy’s character in the film, as usual in Telugu films, we are given very little on the character of the girl who triggers the entire change in the lead, Preeti. She is little more than a puppet– without emotion or thought. As though she doesn’t have a character or a spirit at all, just a body with a pretty face walking around, prepared to take any shape or form that is demanded of her. I mean get this, Arjun completely dominates and controls every single aspect of her life from the moment she enters the college. As soon as he decides he likes her, she becomes branded as a sort of property, and everyone is informed of it so that no one else can claim a right on her. No one even thinks of asking Preeti what she thinks about all of this, whether she is okay with it, whether she even likes this guy, or is interested in being branded this way. Her consent is automatically presumed.

In Telugu films, women have always been displayed this way. As naive, simple creatures who don’t really have many thoughts or feelings of their own. They’re always pure and beautiful, and in need of guardianship, in need of being owned by someone else. In many of the earlier films, the beautiful, educated, naive girl would fall in love with an uneducated, good-for-nothing loafer or a criminal and would reshape her life to be with him. Women in Telugu films are not too different than set props, objects to be utilized for the advancement of the hero’s story. Just like friends, family, comedians. It is this obsession with the hero, a type of hero worship in Telugu film industry that I dislike. The entire film is made by the hero, for the hero, and everything else, purely inconsequential. Before you get up in arms about this, I know this happens in other film industries too, but it ALWAYS happens in Telugu cinema. The heroine is also inconsequential in this one. She’s again, naive, sweet, beautiful. The only difference in Arjun Reddy is that she is a naive, sweet, beautiful girl who likes pre-marital sex.

When this puppet of a heroine is easily convinced into an arranged marriage by her family, is it really surprising? For she had little to say when Arjun Reddy randomly decided to own her. She is completely acting in line with her “non-existing” character.

Of course the next part of the film, or what happens after the heart-break, is what made this film so “controversial” — the forlorn lover falls into depths of alcohol and drug abuse. I didn’t really understand why this has been considered so revolutionary as a film premise? Has no one seen Devdas, or its contemporary version– Dev D? Surely, Udta Punjab would come to mind? Or that Tamil film, Surya Son of Krishnan. I admit, it’s not a topic that is usually portrayed in Telugu cinema. But was it portrayed in the right way?

Arjun Reddy ought to be controversial because for the most part of the movie, it glorifies drug abuse by portraying the character as still being successful, good at his profession, attracting loads of woman, and looking like some kind of sexy, cool beast. At one point, it dawns on the filmmaker that he shouldn’t do that, and the hero selflessly gives up his medical practice permit while confessing he performed all of his surgeries inebriated. But despite the fact that this is the most despicable thing anyone can do, we’re expected to feel respect for the character for “choosing” to reveal this rather than letting his wealthy and influential family cover it up with false witnesses and testimonies. And our alcoholic, drug-addict friend miraculously and instantaneously recovers from his nine month long addiction without any struggle or assistance from anyone, except that of a barber to shave off his beard. To demonstrate substance abuse as something being so easy to get rid of is surely the greatest fault of this film. And for that, it should be held accountable.

As the story progressed, the hero became ever more confusing, contradictory, and outright cheap and disgusting. He criticizes a prospective groom of his friend’s sister for “objectifying women” as though he wasn’t just the one seeing women as simply sources of physical pleasure and begging his friends to give him phone numbers of women who will come to his apartment. At one point in the film, the filmmaker again feels guilty about this (he has a lot of guilt trips throughout to film), and there is a scene where Arjun’s friend tells us how he doesn’t actually sleep with women, they just come over and he chats with them. Yea right. Perhaps you forgot to edit the scenes where he was, and not entirely in a nature of consent, was forcing himself between the legs of women.

The contradictions, and insensible story line becomes unbearable in the conclusion, where we suddenly realize that all of this turmoil, the heart-break, the grievance, the anger, the fear and loss, were all for nothing. There was actually NOTHING preventing the characters from getting together, than their own pride and stupidity. I think this is the first time in a movie where I’ve regretted a happy ending. The ending neutralized and completely destroyed the entire story line. And again what’s interesting is that the female lead experienced some kind of character transformation, and not only ran away from her marriage, but went through her pregnancy alone. There is a sweet ending where the father-in-law sees them kissing (as he had done before) and acts exactly as Arjun predicted. I admit the ending was sweet, and the tremendous ridiculousness of the story line did not prevent me from getting emotional at the end. But I can’t oversee the numerous faults in the movie because of that.

Arjun Reddy is not progressive. It’s not unique and it is not a step-up for Telugu cinema. It is predictable, full of the same old cliches found in every other Telugu film, with just a few shocking elements like sex and drug abuse thrown in. Those elements do not necessary feel natural, nor do they have any particular point. This film does not necessarily demonstrate modern society and its woes because these elements have been placed in it. The filmmaker was not able or willing to go all the way and really make a film entirely on these subjects. He wanted to make sure that the film was still in line with the Telugu film tradition, he didn’t wish to be rejected. But as a result, he’s made one confusing, pointless movie, that is neither really about love, or heartbreak, or sex, or drugs, or friends, or family.

Simran Review: Marketing Misdirection

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Simran wasn’t quite what I expected. The film was marketed like a sequel to Queen, promising witty, funny, entertaining frolic of an empowered, independent women. Praful is certainly that. Independent, opinionated, fun-loving, confident. But this movie is not about that.

It pretends to be so in the beginning, luring us in with an image that is not too different than Kangana’s real-life personality. But then it suddenly turns into a drama of coincidences, a domino-effect of ill-fortune in which the character’s life quickly spirals downward into desperation and crime.

The admiration we briefly develop for Praful soon turns into pity because her single mistake has quickly turned into many, and we watch her sad, desperate attempts to crawl out of the hole she has dug, only to sink in deeper. This empowered woman is irresponsible to the core. And at the end of the movie, we realize she is not empowered at all, getting slapped around by criminals, and fearing her own father more than the police.

In hindsight, the scenes presented to us in the beginning of the film to establish this “empowered woman” character just appears like a gimmick to write into the script what they thought would sell the film. Add to it a poorly developed, poorly fitted romantic angle, and we just have one big mess of a movie.

I try not to focus on logic and technical aspects of a movie too much, but I couldn’t help but get irritated by how unrealistic law enforcement and criminal investigation is portrayed in the movie. Anyone who has any remote idea of how surveillance works would know that someone parking their own car, with a visible license plate at a bank parking lot before robbing it, would get caught in about five minutes. Not to mention that she watches youtube videos about how to rob banks.

Frankly, I would have been more entertained watching a Kangana interview.

Jab Harry Met Sejal Review

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The premise of Jab Harry Met Sejal, although it appears quite ridiculous for the most part, is one of great potential. Where Imtiaz went wrong, was that he should have told the entire story from Sejal’s point of view. While Sejal’s character and life leads this story, it’s still the man who needs to be “completed” at the end and the woman who needs to prove herself as “worthy” of his love. It should have been the opposite. Because this is not a story of a man looking for himself, it’s actually a story of a woman looking for love. Is that not obvious?

A woman looking for a ring while she has it all along, and finding something else entirely, one that she didn’t even realize she had been looking for. She’s the one who is engaged, but not satisfied with that relationship. She is the one who gets off a plane at the last minute and pressures Harry to guide her back through the places she had visited. She is the one who crosses limits with him, encouraging him all through the journey, to be closer to her, to open up to her. She never hesitates with him. She never doubts him, despite the womanizer image he pushes in her face. She trusts him, and reaches out to him repeatedly to return the affection she offers.

And yet it’s Harry who has the void? One that she must fill in order to be completed herself? And it’s Harry who proves her worth to her?

Imtiaz created a vivacious, strong-willed, charming Sejal, and then “killed” her in the conclusion, right in front of our eyes. This was not meant to be a story of a lost middle-aged man finding himself, but a story of a woman finding a companion. A woman who had the void, and who was being completed. A woman who doesn’t need others to tell her her worth, but who needs to remember it, and believe in it herself.

This is not the first time that Imtiaz has subdued a female character to the inner-search of a male one. It happened too in Rockstar, and in Tamasha, where the female character– who was the inspiration and soul of the story– was sacrificed for the other to complete his journey.

This was not the case however, in the best known and most adored film of Imtiaz– Jab We Met. In that story, both the characters had a journey to complete, voids to fill. And they filled it for each other, helped each other reach their destinations, and united along the way to a mutual destination. When Imtiaz remembers to focus on his female’s characters’ hopes and desires as much as he does on his male characters’, that day, he will produce another Jab We Met. Or just forget about that, and let the woman find herself for once!

The Power of Biswa Kalyan Rath’s Narrative

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I don’t know if you are all familiar with Biswa Kalyan Rath, of the popular Biswa- Kanan duo of the Pretentious Movie Reviews series on Youtube. Biswa has a stand-up series on Amazon Prime, and you can catch the clips on Youtube as well. I have been following these clips but it was only recently that I caught a complete show.

I have no expertise to comment on stand-up comedy, but after seeing Biswa’s performance I couldn’t help but be impressed with his narrative style, which I think is the reason that he is unique and becoming more and more popular.

I think all stand-up comedians have a prep process before they go on stage. It is no surprise that that the show has a pre-planned theme. Biswa too has a theme in mind before going on stage, but what is so fantastic about Biswa’s performance is how he threads that theme throughout the narrative. He often dives into different topics, but somehow connects these topics to the main theme at the end. It’s a fantastic way of building-up an idea, and the re-emergence of this common theme creates confidence and comfort in the audience and helps them to bond with the narrative, and the comedian.

I’ve not been so much into stand-up comedy until recently, and it is mostly thanks to the new generation of Indian stand-up comedians, who truly do comedy with intelligence. Check these guys out on youtube when you get a chance.

A Death in the Gunj Review

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You have no idea how much I had been looking forward to A Death in the Gunj, written and directed by Konkona Sensharma and starring some great actors like Kalki Koechlin. I saw some wonderful reviews of the film online before it even released in mainstream cinemas, as some people had the chance to see the film in screenings at film festivals early on. This further increased my anticipation of what I expected to be an impactful film at the least. If you are just as excited about the film, haven’t seen it yet and would like to form your own opinion of it, I suggest you stop reading the remaining part of the review.

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The matter of fact is, A Death in the Gunj was disappointing. It was shockingly underwhelming and predictable, and not the least thrilling if you ask me. There is only one point of mystery in the film, which I admit was delivered effectively and connected the very first scene with the very last one. But the middle of that story, was nothing special.

A Death in the Gunj is about a young man struggling with life after the death of his father, and how his depression and emotional struggle reaches a sad climax amidst indifferent and selfish relatives with whom he is spending the holidays.

While I enjoy slow-paced  but meaningful films that create a sense of comfort and ease, like Piku for example, I believe it only works when we are able to establish a genuine and positive connection with the characters early on in the story. I was unfortunately not able to connect with any of the characters in this film. In fact, I felt the film did an excellent job of making the characters repugnant, not just to the lead character Shyamal, but to me, the audience. Maybe that was the point. But the issue is that, I also did not feel any connection to Shyamal.

I think the struggle of Shyamal remained as much of a mystery to the audience as it did to his relatives. Shyamal as a character is such an unbearing personality, that it is easy to dismiss him although he is the eyes through which we experience the story. He is much like an object in the film, represented by his father’s old sweater, his notebook, a moth… but the meanings and emotions that he attaches to those objects were never quite explained to us. So as I watched his turmoil intensify and grow on screen, I did not understand him and his reasons, and after a while, it was just watching a man who has lost his mental stability and getting ever yet closer to the edge without anyone else noticing.

When I read my own words describing the film, I wonder if this was Konkona’s intention all along? –Making the Shyamal character so unimpressive that even we would nearly forget his presence… Could it be that the film  has been implemented so utterly realistically that I’ve failed to get the point? Perhaps… I’m not sure.

I AM sure that knowing the excellence of Konkona’s art may have increased expectations a little too far for this film, but it doesn’t change the fact that the above mentioned drawbacks disappointed me. When the film ended, I just felt so underwhelmed.