'(The Blog) With No Name', perhaps best described as a stream of notes and thoughts - 'remembered, recovered and (sometimes) invented'.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Three Films

Last week, I saw three Malayalam movies in close succession.

1. The really good: 'Ivan Megharoopan' directed by P. Balachandran.

This film draws inspiration from the life (mostly love-life) of late poet P. Kunhiraman Nair (1906-78). 'P' revelled in the colors and flavors and the festive exhuberance of the Keralan rural life and his poetry was brimful of recurring images of a sensual arcadia. His life, an obsessive quest for a pristine ideal of beauty ('nityakanyaka', the ever-pristine) was one of incessant wandering and amorous entanglements. The film is a sympathetic but clinical journey into the mind and times of this unique literary figure. More than his love-life (several capably acted and beautifully shot and scored episodes seguing into one another, with the concluding one but a little overcooked), I was impressed by the film's revelation of how even the poet's generous and apparently self-denying idealism hid within itself an all-excluding Narcissism and a burden of insecurities and jealosies - as revealed in his guilt-laden but decisive snuffing out of his own wife's (actually she was but one of his many wives) poetic talent. I recommend this film to all my readers, non-Mallu or otherwise(*).

2. The intense but severely flawed: 'Makaramanju', on the eminent artist Ravi Varma's (1848-1906) creative quest and travails. The film proceeds on two intertwined tracks - one involving Ravivarma and his Marathi muse Sugandha Bai and the puranic love-story of Pururavas and Urvasi, which Ravi Varma had tried to interpret thru one of his works.

Ravi Varma created some wonderfully observed Keralan domestic interiors - especially featuring women and children. He also did a few lovely 'desi pin-ups' and some lovely-but-not-quite-great paintings of goddesses (his Saraswati does come close to transcendence); the rest of his vast oeuvre - mostly mythologies, some royal portraits, whatever - was mostly a stagey pageant of populist mediocrity with sickly men in garish 'Raja-part' costumes and none-too-attractive (to my eyes) women. He was an assiduous and hardworking artist who sought fame and money (no crime but not the hallmark of a pure artist grappling with the demons of his creativity either); the results were uneven but his material life was, on the whole, a very comfortable success-story and he rose to historic eminence as India's first ever art celebrity.

Indeed, Ravi Varma's career has enough content for a broad biopic exploring the social, political and religious circumstances of those long-gone days. But, he was no van Gogh; he was not even a 'P' wielding a brush. Yet, 'Makaramanju' tries to twist his story and career into a tortured genius trip - an effort bound to be vastly less than convincing owing to the sheer nature of the artist's body of work; the attempts to draw parallels with the Pururavas story (the mythical hero shown as a pastoral chieftain, tragically involved with a divine courtesan; the looks of the hero appear modeled on Aravindan's Rama) does not quite cut it either - a primary reason being the very indifferent quality of Ravivarma's own visual interpretation of the same story.

Lenin Rajendran, the director of the film, has to his credit the finest period film made to date in Malayalam - a musical biopic on Swati Tirunal ('Megharoopan' and the earlier 'Perunthachan' are the only other classy Mal films in the same genre). With this 'Mist of the Capricorn' (even the title appears off the mark; 'Mithunamazha' - July rains - would have been better, given the lush Monsoon outdoors which fill the movie!), he falls far short of his own benchmark although it is certainly not for want of trying.

3. The Complex: 'Spirit' starring Mohanlal and directed by Ranjith.

At the basic level, this is a fairly well-made film although its tempo is uneven. The acting of Mohanlal and co. is up to scratch. The dialog is usually smart and sometimes street-smart and the music, adequate - although both are loaded with intellectual pretensions.

At the next level, there is plenty in this film to intensely dislike. I have seen some of the 'feudal superhero' movies which were a rage in Kerala around a decade ago and have never been comfortable with the genre. Ranjit, the director of 'Spirit', used to be one of the prime movers and exponents of the feudal wave. In more recent times, he has branched out and explored other genres with considerable success but old habits don't appear to die soft. 'Spirit' revolves around a middle-aged, hard-drinking intellectual of sorts who (although he does not physically bash up anyone; btw, neither is he overtly feudal) towers over and literally rides roughshod over everyone around. And these everyone appear to be competing with one another in suckering up to him: his ex-wife still admires him and lusts for him; her present husband (an absolute shoo-in for 'Willing Cuckold of the Year')keeps saying "I am a nobody in comparison to his genius"; and then, there is a firebrand lady super-cop who can toung-lash and thrash any man but who profoundly enjoys coming second-best to the hero, even in circumstances such as when the latter is caught drunk-driving - maybe she too has gone nuts with lust. As the movie progresses, the great man pulls himself together and ditches the bottle, having never met anything approaching a comeuppance (after all nobody and nothing can influence him, even for the better); and then, in a gratuitous expression of 'noblesse oblige', he decides to reform a hopelessly alcoholic plumber. His methods include subjecting the plumber's impoverished family to a sting operation and telecasting visuals of his scandalous treatment of his wife and children. Of course, the treatment works like magic. To me this is the hero's final message: "I could correct myself *when I pleased*, but not every alcoholic can - after all, I am great and you guys are not. But even I, in my infinite compassion, cannot possibly go around and correct each one of you. So, alcoholics of the world, take after me and heal thyselves!". Appropriately enough, an association of Mohanlal fans came up a bill-board which went something like "Alcohol could not conquer our hero; he conquered alcohol!" And in a ridiculous gesture, the Kerala Governmment went berserk and gave the film a tax-break calling it an eye-opener to society and stuff.

Now, I have been told by a more analytical mind there is yet another level at which this film could be - and should be - seen. I quote:

"A well-meaning film showing an alcoholic protagonist paying for his vice would really be too simplistic and banal. Real Life often plays out differently. Rarely does society penalize irresponsible drinkers as it should; indeed it often tolerates and sometimes even panders shamelessly to them. A drunken trouble-maker seldom gets thrashed the way he ought to; his family and well-wishers can turn into willing doormats - and his tantrums, suffered and even encouraged. Worse, if the habitual drunk has any talent above the average, he is called a genius and worshipped as a tragic figure - and it is precisely such a situation that 'Spirit' connects with! Know what, even beasts appear to be in awe of alcoholism - stray dogs may chase and attack a sober loner but never do they bother an alcoholic on the prowl; even snakes slither away - have you ever heard of a drunken loafer dying of snakebite? Whatever, the film certainly is a loud and clear warning, not so much to alcoholics as to *those who allow themselves to be manipulated and ruined by them*. An alcoholic rarely meets his comeuppance; of course, he might drink himself to death but he also takes down with him, easily another dozen, several of whom are willing suckers! As for the tax break, an eye-opener to all such potential suckers among us the film certainly is - by the very act of going out of the way to sucker up to its producers, the government has proved it by example!"

I sign off with a quiz: What is the only thing in common between these European countries: Belgium, Finland, Slovakia, Estonia, Bulgaria, Portugal, Montenegro, Bosnia, Moldova and Greece?

Answer: At the 2012 Olympics, all of them ranked below .... India!


(*) I do have some detailing issues with 'Megharoopan': Rural folk from Vallapuzha in the heart of Malabar are heard speaking a Travancore-ish dialect in this film; another discordant note was struck by Yesudas's overly cultivated classical rendering of a poem (lip synched by the lead actor) - just as Ramya's freespirited singing of 'aande londe' was one of the big "wow!" moments in the film.

As I had observed in an earlier post, the film owes the poem 'Megharoopan' an honorable mention. To the extend that I could make out, it has failed to acknowledge that debt. I would of course be happy if my observation is wrong!