THE 2018 TABLEAU PART 3

Here I continue with the streak of Indian cinematic gems that decorated 2018 and the consensus is that they were as versatile as the nation they represent, weaving together a mosaic of cultural heritage and personal histories lasting beyond a particular era of setting, with issues lingering in the here and now. Once again, social mobility in the name of truth was recognized in each. So here they are.

*****

PADMAN

There are many draws for R. Balki’s latest, in a line of hits that tend to deviate from status quo : so if it was the 30 year age difference refusing to hamper an interesting bond in Cheeni Kum(2007), a progeria afflicted kid’s wonder years ( Paa, 2009) or a husband as homemaker ( Ki and Ka, 2016), the man has never settled for tried and tested formulas, mining dollops of humour and a different narrative style from each venture. In PADMAN, he fictionalises the life of Arunachalam Muruganantham, the trailblazer from Coimbatore who revolutionized a movement for gender parity in rural India by making low cost sanitary pads for women.

It tends to obviate the hush hush, wink wink attitudes reserved for menstrual health in general. There is a message for entrepreneurship, self dependency and a frank foundation among spouses so sorely missing in the mainstream. Here, culture chauvinism is offset by the dynamism of the protagonist and as played by king of the masses Akshay Kumar, the crusade for change is not all about token earnestness. His hope enlivens the proceedings along with an ever smiling rapport.

Challenges then obviously come, including a long period of separation from his beloved wife( Radhika Apte, the poster child for 2018) Nobody actually trusts his vision. Blame it on rural fiats. Or on centuries of cloistered thinking. As a film focused on such a personal topic pertaining to women and society at large, Apte and Sonam Kapoor represent two poles.

Apte is pure alchemy as the traditionally schooled woman, with her conservatism no fault of her own, who is unable to make sense of her husband’s concern for her during ‘those days of the month’ but knows his heart is in the right place. This screen avatar could not be more diametrically different from the uninhibited, socially aware risk taker she is and it’s here when her talent for impersonating another life comes to the fore.

But Padman’s true soul is none other than Sonam as the educated, enlightened Delhi girl, daughter of an equally enlightened single father, who is proficient in the classical arts ( she’s a star tabla player) and later spreads the word about menstrual hygiene across the countryside with Akshay’s Lakshmi. Adding a personal touch to his mission and ensuring his voice eventually reaches a forum like the U.N as well, tips of gender equality are brought together. The most intimate aspects of women’s woes are addressed and her door to door canvassing works, as a man propagating it will be simply out of place, given the stigma and circumstances in an unequal order.

The film actually finds its frank, idiosyncratic rationale when she is on screen and Sonam is as natural as it comes. Both women act in the only way they know as per their characteristics. A great nugget regarding the nature of working relationships intertwining with mutual attraction and the vast gulf between urban and rural is uttered by her and is one of the highlights.

This is an enterprise aimed at bringing the sexes together and bridging cultural gaps. Suffice to say, the deed is done successfully here. We salute Mr. Arunachalam’s original seed of progress even more. I also marveled at how our own kin fail to stand for the truth sometimes and then revel in our success perhaps without grasping the ramifications of our personal vision for the future ,as is demonstrated by Lakshmi’s family of women and larger village folk.

******

SANJU

Indian film personality Sanjay Dutt’s extraordinary life of monumental highs and lows was destined to grace celluloid screens, outsized as it is in the epic failures and tragic pit stops. For here is the living individual who saw it all, exposing the cracked ends of several Achilles’ heels at once and never pretending to be anything other than the sum of his human foibles.

Sanju is essentially a Rajkumar Hirani feature – entertaining, humorous and emotionally engaging. It’s a biography but not the atypical one as the seemingly melodramatic elements are nothing compared to his public presence that showed more intimately the manner in which life engulfed him and he fell prey to its whims and fancies. What the screenplay reveals is the casual misogyny, bad company and fragile ego that really undoes young men, ultimately snowballing into the kind of trainwreck Sanjay Dutt eventually became.

His courage at facing those, down to multiple jail terms, is a testament to his personality as is his stature as bona fide movie star. I also know that being a man, his bigger star status has subsumed his legend. Would a woman be given a similar story if she crossed out a conventional life?

Sanju benefits gloriously from a once in a lifetime work from Ranbir Kapoor, who minutely channels Dutt to a t, and an ensemble of gifted performers all pulling out aces. On the directorial front, Hirani maintains his trademark style which is rarely subtle. However, it elicits the kind of heartfelt moments he masters so effortlessly in each work.

The man had seen too much for us to brush off his on screen iteration as a grand celebration of ‘a man’s life’ He claims to be no role model. But a survivor he is despite his acolytes and by now legendary status. It keeps us guessing as to where complicity ends and societal hypocrisy begins to affect an individual life. Ranbir hits every note to cement his alchemy.

*****

ANDHADHUN

This Sriram Raghavan thriller is deliciously unpredictable and it made me jostle with the limits of storytelling within the format as crime is such a distant construct, unpeeling one part of it is out of the ordinary for a layman.

I believe the truth is stranger than fiction hence the twisted dynamics of Andhadhun, an absurdist, realistically pegged production of human vice, murder begetting lies and more body counts. At another level, it’s an existential refraction of our preoccupations with crimes and misdemeanors that utilizes its welcome conceit of a blind piano player to sift fact from fiction, the seen from the unseen.

Piano notes punctuating sinister motives and the flush of love coincide with micro moments that examine ways of the world across class chasms, from the urbane rich, thriving middle class down to the poor, all surviving amidst moral corruptions and medical malfeasance.

As for the leads, Tabu, well she’s our femme fatale of the hour while Ayushman has another tune to go gung-ho about. Ditto the entire cast. I feel Andhadhun ( Blind Tune) will age well, as a standalone best and a generic exemplar. Finally, it’s another exploration of the heightened sensory attributes that visual impairment unwittingly bestows on artists ala Ship of Theseus. Here the agenda is absolutely, alluringly different.

*****

PADMAAVAT

I cannot write anything new about Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s – my favourite filmmaker – mass appeal and with Padmaavat, he rejuvenates a historic triangle consigned to history books that we have grown up consuming for its mythic tragedy and simmering valour. Cinema enables us to transmute the distant past and for that purpose alone, Bhansali rises to the occasion, keeping his traditional motifs intact. His artistic subsumption reveals the epical tragedies that line these lives and the mounting stead of evil, when it amasses a maniacal sway, is unleashed on the other hand.

Deepika Padukone is appropriately feisty and enduring even with little to say sometimes and her eyes emit a fire of survival that thousand fists or any battle royale cannot. She has, in my opinion, raised herself to echelons of classical performances belonging to the golden era with her turn here. As for Shahid Kapoor, he has grip on the martial code of fealty to honour and is appropriately appealing. The trumpcard is pulled by Ranveer Singh, evil incarnate and hardly excessive owing to the historical figure he portrays.

Padmaavat’s screenplay is stirring, the visuals top notch and the final stretch of the film a recreation of the lengths to which even royal women had to go to escape clutches of patriarchy, with the slow motion movement towards an inferno of faith haunting us and pulled out from girdles of a contentious, cyclical, patriarchal history.

******

In the next post, I will write about the last significant entry in my 2018 tableau of Indian films, especially given its value in the run up to Republic Day of India, celebrated every 26th January.

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