Paan Singh Tomar (2012): Some films are meant to run that extra mile to go beyond being a mere cinematic experience. As we see names of real-life athletes who died unsung flash across the screen at the end of Paan Singh Tomar we realize what we’ve just witnessed in the past 190 minutes of taut playing-time is not just film. It’s a treatise on what destiny has in store for people who do not conform to socially acceptable definitions of success. Indeed Irrfan Khan as Paan Singh Tomar typifies that criminal neglect of all athletes in our country barring cricketers who, as we all know by now, are grossly overrated sportsperson. Tomar was a steeplechase runner. Not that it made any difference to his destiny. In the army for the long innings Tomar, we are told, took voluntary retirement to look after his family and land in his native village. This is where Dhulia’s riveting screenplay, where not a moment is squandered in self-indulgent editing, gets truly astounding. Abandoning the manageable hurdles of the steeplechase Tomar took to the gun to avenge the wrong done to his family. There are hurdles, and hurdles. And some impossible to overcome. The two lives of Paan Singh Tomar, in the army as a celebrated sportsperson and as an outlaw on the run in the Chambal (not on a horse, please!) are brought together in a stirring unexpectedly involving a blend of the brilliant and the haunting. While Dhulia’s earlier works suffered for the lack of a suitable budget Paan Singh Tomar is technically a polished piece of cinema with the editing (Aarti Bajaj) and background score (Sandeep Chowta) adding a dimension beyond the drama of the driven athlete. The film is shot by cinematographer Aseem Mishra with an intriguing blend of bleeding authenticity and a poetic resplendence. Indeed, Tigmanshu Dhulia’s training as a raconteur of a tale of social injustice and damnifying outlawry harks back to the director’s association with Shekhar Kapoor’s Bandit Queen.
In portraying Paan Singh’s leap from celebrated athlete to the wanted bandit, Dhulia avoids the ostentatious brutality of the circumstances that made Phoolan Devi a social outcast. Paan Singh Tomar has very little on-screen violence. It’s the heart that bleeds profusely and invisibly in almost every frame. The unspoken question, why do we treat our athletes so shabbily, trails the narrative, as does the other larger question of social inequality and the subversion of law. Unlike other films with a strong social message Paan Singh Tomar never stops being a truly liberating cinematic experience. Of course, much of the credit for the film’s sledgehammer effect goes to Irrfan Khan’s central performance. As Paan Singh Irrfan is in one word, flawless. There is not a single shot in the film that he gets wrong. He follows his character’s destiny with intuitive alertness that leaves no room for ambiguity in the interpretation of the character’s complex life. And it’s not just about getting the character’s spoken language and body language right. Irrfan goes way beyond. Would the other grossly overrated Khans of our cinema kindly watch Irrfan’s performance? The dialogues range from riveting to refreshing. Comments on subordination and oppression are often laced in laughter. God knows we need a sense of humour to survive the progressive rampancy of socio-political injustice. Dhulia carpets the engrossing film with episodes that bring us close to tears. In a scene like the one where his army guru (Vipin Sharma) gifts Paan Singh a carton of ice cream Irrfan sheds real tears…We don’t need the actor to tell us that. We know. The beauty of watching Irrfan transform into Tomar is the seamless leap the actor takes into the character. Irrfan is blessed with first-rate supporting actors, many of whom we haven’t seen much on screen before. They add to the film’s high level of authenticity by just not looking like and speaking their lines like actors. The scenes showing Irrfan running with other actors are beautifully captured as moments of metaphorical significance. Somewhere down the line, the scenes showing Tomar jumping over hurdles on the race track merge into the larger picture to tell us, life on the field and life outside the race track have one thing in common. You have to keep running, no matter what the odds.
Having said what the poetry of Paan Singh Tomar so exquisitely tells us, we must not let the film’s sheer entertainment value go by unnoticed. More than the sum-total of its infinite resonances on the quality of life lived in an intrinsically unjust social order, Paan Singh Tomar is a terrific edge-of-the-seat entertainer. The synthesis of two genres—the sports film and the dacoit drama—is done with such confident ingenuity that we hardly realize when one ends, the other begins. “No one gave a damn about me when I won medals for the country. Today when I’m a baaghi (rebel) everyone wants to know about Paan Singh Tomar,” Irrfan says acoustically. Hopefully, after this film, we’d learn to care for our unsung heroes a bit more. Oh yes, a word on the stunning soundtrack. From snatches of old Lata Mangeshkar melodies to radio announcements on Nargis Dutt’s demise, time passages are achieved through incidental snatches of voices caught in mid-air. Life’s life that. You never know what you will experience in that raga we call existence until a snatch of a line hits you from a distance. If only Paan Singh had been accorded the respect he deserved he wouldn’t have ended dead in a canal. But then we would not get to watch this remarkable film either. Think about it.
Kahaani (2012): This was a great time to be a movie buff. Within a week of Paan Singh Tomar came Kahaani in which Vidya Balan is so flawlessly resplendent. Playing Vidya Bagchi, an NRI who lands in Kolkata heavily pregnant and immeasurably distressed by the disappearance of her husband, Vidya Balan doesn’t hit a single false note in the entire graph of her character’s fascinating journey.
Kahaani is not an ordinary thrill-a-minute film about a search for a missing person It’s a lot more. Bringing a virgin vitality to the suspense drama Kahaani strikes a captivatingly consonant balance between realism in art and the art of courting realism without losing the sheer entertainment quotient of the plot. From the moment Vidya lands in Kolkata the colour, vibrancy, bustle and jostle that are peculiar to Kolkata, assail our senses. It’s a claustrophobic yet liberating world of intrigue and deception. A pungent flavour of anxiety and stress qualify the narration from Frame 1. Sujoy Ghosh whose earlier films gave us no clue of the ingenuity that he displays here with such ostensible casualness, cuts the footage with the razor-sharp economy, leaving no sign of the surgery involved in leaving behind scenes and putting together a tale that pays a homage to Hitchcock even while it tilts its topi to the detective films of Satyajit Ray. The complexities of metropolitan life emerge in a kind of bridled flurry. Within a few minutes of Vidya Bagchi’s landing on Kolkata, we know her search for her missing husband is not going to be an easy cakewalk. Yes, we will see this spirited woman’s pursuit of the truth to the end. Sujoy Ghosh crafts a tale of devious dynamics that do not make a song and dance of their cloak-and-dagger intentions. The narrative doesn’t whip up a lather of anxieties. Stock devices of the suspense genre are here thrown meaningfully into the Hoogly. The relevance and resonances of Vidya’s journey into the dark unrevealed bowel of India’s secret service emerge in illuminating details created in Vidya’s character which add up finally to a jigsaw where not a single piece is out of place.
The end-game shot in an exquisite eruption of Durga Puja’s compelling colours is so unexpected, it is bound to leave even the most diehard cynics with a sense of satiated suspense. Indeed, so clever is the writing and so stunning yet convincing the denouement that I was persuaded into wondering, did Sujoy Ghosh filch the material from some unidentifiable source? While it would be criminal to give away any of the plot details it would be in the scope of permissible praise to say the writing is not meant to strew red herrings in our way. As we go back to the film at the end we see every detail, every twist and turn in the plot was meant to be a coherent pointer to the complete picture. Ghosh’s masterful storytelling leaves no room to doubt the existence of a rather unforgiving God who charts a seemingly cruel destiny for the unsuspecting individual. Vidya’s portrayal of grace under pressure is so measured and skilled, I at times wondered if she was watching herself perform from a distance to make sure she doesn’t take her character’s distress into the kingdom of melodrama. Vidya has splendid support from actors who merge into the Kolkatan conundrum with the seamless inevitability of people who accept extraordinary circumstances as part of life’s ordinary patterns. Impressive in his own right is Parambrata Chattopadhyay as Vidya’s pillar of support from within an Establishment that insists on throwing her off the track. (By the way, Vidya is never pushed onto the subway track. That’s one of the smaller myths surrounding the film that comes undone…Wait till the end to see how many of the myths surrounding the pregnant protagonist are demolished). Parambrata plays his gentle character with such tender affection you begin to believe goodness is not an extinct commodity in the Establishment.
Nawazuddin Siddiqui that brilliant actor from Kabir Khan’s New York and Paan Singh Tomar, brings a steely-sharp ruthlessness to his investigative officer’s role. In one of Vidya’s best sequences where she quietly tells him to keep his menacing advice to himself, Nawazuddin steps back to let the lady have her moment of glory, unhampered. Vidya Balan takes centre stage with great skill and restrained pride. Her laughter of unalloyed joy when she bonds with the chai-wallah kid (Ritobroto Mukherjee) and her final breakdown sequence where all the walls dividing her and us the viewers from the terrible truth are broken, bring her close to the cathartic emotions that Shabana Azmi displays. Vidya displays a rare understanding of her character’s exacerbated emotional and physical state. Luckily for her, her co-actors display no outward or inward signs of insecurity in playing roles that are designed to be supremely supportive. Veteran Bengali actors unknown to Bollywood such as Saswata Mukherjee as a hired assassin and Kharaj Mukherjee as a kindly podgy cop, fill up the edges of the comprehensive lucid portrait of a woman with a mission, without crowding the canvas. Kahaani is one of those rare films that can easily lay claims to being a game-changer. And yet the narrative makes no claims. The destiny of the protagonist is charted in a breathless sweep of urgently persuasive episodes that tumble out as though God wrote Vidya Bagchi’s screenplay. Enthralling, absorbing and engaging the narrative never resorts to italicized emotions to get our attention. We are hooked unconditionally from Scene 1.We surrender to Vidya’s journey. She gives us no choice.
Vicky Donor (2012): When was the last time you saw a Bollywood comedy that made you chuckle and smile for two hours? When was the last time you saw a funny film that you wished wouldn’t end? When the last time you saw a film where every actor in a big or small role simple sparkled on screen? Vicky Donor is quite simply the Celluloid God’s gift to mankind. It’s original and thoroughly engaging. It makes you feel blessed and blissed, quite like that shag in the shower long ago, that you’ve forgotten about. How good it feels to watch a director pick up a pertinent issue and convert it into a perky precocious and endearing rom-com which is less room and, ahem, a whole lot of cum. Indeed Vicky Donor is suffused with delectable plus points, not the least of them being debutant Ayushmann Khurana who seems to be born to play Vicky the…er donor. Ayushmann—God bless his spontaneity—has formidable competition in the acting department from Kamlesh Gill and Dolly Ahluwalia who play his grandmom and mom, and from the redoubtable Anu Kapoor who as the sperm doctor, adds so much to his role and to the film you wonder why he isn’t seen more often in our films. Each character is written with a keen for details that go a long way in giving them a life beyond the camera. Delhi, done to death in film after film, re-awakens in Vicky Donor. Kamaljeet Negi’s cinematography makes no overt attempt to explore the city through the topography. Sircar’s splendid direction takes us into the heart of Delhi. The people, their homes and especially their spoken language come alive in ways that cinema has ceased to offer in recent times.
I’d give the film the thumbs-up for the sheer exuberance joy and conversational authenticity expressed in the spoken words. Writer Juhi Chaturvedi is a prized find. Cherish her, you talent-starved Bollywoodians. And cherish this film’s ability to turn the subject of sperm donation into a joyous celebration of life. There are no dull moments in the narration. No character walks by in Sircar’s Delhi just for the heck of it. There are no incidental characters. Even the guy on the road who calls out the leading lady’s name on Vicky’s behalf is there because he belongs to the films perfect-fitted jigsaw design depicting domesticity and adversity in the competitive city. Never in living memory have I seen a film where every character comes alive as an individual. If Dr Malpani (Anu Kapoor) is quite a character, so is his assistant Chaman (Bupesh Pandya) and his nurse Lata (K.V Rajni). If Ayushman’s Vicky is a scene-stealer, so is his romantic lead, the lovely Yami Gautam who as an independent working girl from a Bengali family brings a disarming grace to her character. Her Bengali father, played by Jayant Das, slips in some defining moments towards the end. We aren’t surprised. By then we know every character in this film counts. We care. Vicky Donor is a precious and important work of art. It negotiates an unusual theme with the least amount of fuss and the maximum warmth and vigour. The scenes are woven with seamless serenity into one another. Like life, the film is not only about laughter. The heartbreaking moment where Ayushmann holds his sleeping mother’s hand defines the undercurrent of somberness that life in Delhi constantly secretes.
Scratch the surface, and the pain under the bravura display of flamboyance and gaiety comes to the surface. Vicky Donor gets that urbane mix of the light-hearted jaunty mood at the top and the agony beneath, with pitch-perfect accuracy. The very act of attempting a film on a sticky subject like sperm donation suggests a dry staccato treatment. Pulling away from the pitfalls of pontification and self-importance, Vicky Donor simply takes us on a carefree joyride where the blend of pain and pleasure is never forced into the narrative. It just happens. In a film industry saturated with slapstick double-meaning comedy, Shootjit Sircar has conceived a comedy on sex that is not a sex comedy. No small achievement this. Large-hearted and generously endowed with moments that you take away with you from the film even as John Abraham comes on screen for an irrelevant song and dance item, Vicky Donor is the surprise entertainer of the year. It is the warmest, funniest most sensible and sparkling comedy in a very long time. In Shoojit Sircar’s vision, every single actor shines with a glorious naturalness. Ayushmann is effortlessly the discovery of the year. As for the film, in Anu Kapoor words, there are impatient sperms, angry sperms, stupid sperms. Seen in those terms this film is quite a fertile piece of work that says a lot more about life than we expect from it.
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