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Review: No Smoking

It is not often that a Hindi movie reminds you of a Murakami short story*. Make that never ever. But that is precisely what director Anurag Kashyap accomplishes with No Smoking. This phantasmagorical allegory explores the idea of addiction, and by extension of non-conformity. It takes a dark and cynical view of the the price one has to pay – to kick the habit, to survive, in fact to do both, as one can’t be accomplished without the other. The explicit addiction in this case is smoking, but replace it with a compulsion of your choice (“vice” according to the rest of the word) and the movie would work just as well.

In telling his story, Kashyap dispenses with or even intentionally subverts many standard Bollywood props, starting with the name of the hero (John Abraham). He is K, just K. And if you must know, his brother’s J. Yes, there are dream sequences involving pristine snow covered slopes. Only, they are nightmares, presumably set in Uzbekistan (up yours, Switzerland), and there’s no singing. There is a Bipasha Basu item number, but only if you aren’t such a boor as to walk out of the theater immediately after the credits start rolling.

K is a chain smoker and when his wife threatens to leave him because of it, he reluctantly agrees to check out this rehab center that appears to be all the rage among his friends. Sinister and bizarre things start happening after he signs up for the program, and the fun is in sitting back and watching him deal with every new lemon that life throws at him. There is some fine black humor, dark thoughts that no doubt every smoker has experienced. There’s even some slapstick thrown in, but thankfully not too much.

The movie is not without its flaws. At 135 minutes it is too long. For starters, a little less of Ms. Takia (particularly in the second half) and lots more of Messrs. Shorey and Rawal would have made a better movie. And ending the story about fifteen minutes before it actually does would have made it a lot sharper and edgier. While one admires Kashyap’s ambitious attempts at pulling a Tarantino with the soundtrack, the places where the music does actually work best is when it is original. Overall, the more had Kashyap stuck to the ‘less is more’ rule, the better this movie will have been.

It is impossible to watch or write about this movie without also thinking about all the bad press it has been receiving. It is a pity that the critic community in India has decided to hate this movie. And it is an even bigger pity that Indian audiences set such store by reviews. I was one of five people at this evening’s show.

 

Kashyap has been accused of being arrogant, confusing, and inaccessible to just mention a few of the labels being thrown at him. To be fair to Kashyap, none of these labels are justified, excepting perhaps the one about arrogance – after all, he did go and make a movie with no bad guys (or good guys for that matter), no romance (the only terms of er, endearment used by the leads are “bitch” and “bastard”), and to top it all uses humor that will make no sense whatsoever to three year olds. Kashyap in turn has been far less diplomatic in his response. All of this drama makes what is essentially a rather tame story by indie movie standards into something bigger. So that, despite its best efforts, this movie ends up being not very different from the scores of others that are made back home – Indian cinema will have its pound of melodrama, if not inside a movie then outside it.

As mentioned before, this movie is far from perfect. But to hate a movie simply because it does not stick to standard Bollywood formulae seems a bit much. And this new found thirst for logic from a country raised on utterly illogical cinema is both amusing and annoying. Kudos to Kashyap for pushing the envelope on Hindi-cinema narrative, and hats off to him for refusing to dumb down his vision as well as his sheer optimism in daring to hope that Indian audiences will still “get it”. Better luck next time, pal. Hope you keep ‘em coming.

* The story am thinking about is ‘UFO in Kushiro’ from ‘After the Quake’. There are also elements of ‘Sputnik Sweetheart’. For the record, I haven’t read or watched Stephen King’s Cat’s Eye, parts of which are also supposed inspiration for this movie.

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NYFF ’07 etc.

I spent the last weekend at the New York Film Festival. Brief reviews follow in the order of least to most enjoyed films:

1. The Man from London
I know Falstaff liked this one – but am going to have to disagree. I found this supposed film noir boring, in the extreme. Yes, there is a murder, even a suitcase full of cash, but given the pacing, these otherwise standard noir props lose their mystery. The black and white cinematography looks striking, but surely, a little more than imagery is needed when you decide to spread a movie over 135 painful minutes. Tarr’s refusal to move forward starts to feel cruel after a while, especially once you realize that this movie is never going to pick up its pace and you have no choice but to wait in quiet desperation for something, anything to happen. And just when something finally does happen, you realize that what you’re watching hasn’t anything to do with the story – for instance, you might spend many, many minutes watching people getting off a boat and into a train, or an old man in a cafe eating a bowl of soup, tearing his way through a hard piece of bread, or said soup man (yes, irrelevant characters make multiple reappearances) dancing with another old man to an accordion, etc. – and even as you realize that whatever you’re watching is irrelevant crap, you know that it’s going to take forever before you’ll be shown something else, and who knows if that will matter.

I suspect this is one of those movies where you’re supposed to “contemplate” about oh, the nature of man or of death or goodness knows what else while that old man finishes his soup. I used the time to catch up on sleep (on short supply thanks to a midnight show followed by an early morning show), made a list of all the things I wanted to do in life or whatever life was left to me by the end of this movie. I got far enough to include big picture goals such as “travel and exercise more”, which as you know, get added on the list after you’ve dealt with more mundane, but pressing tasks like “pay credit card bill” and “mail rent check”.

At one point, about 15 -20 minutes before the movie actually ended, something went wrong with the projector, and it looked liked this was it. Someone started clapping – in sheer relief, I suspect. But no, the evil folks behind the projector fixed it up, and we had to sit through the rest. But I did survive it, and after this movie, I was determined to watch something good. So I purchased tickets for Lust, Caution, which takes us to the next movie on the list – one I ended up watching because I had four hours to kill before the Ang Lee movie started.

2. Across the Universe
While I am a Beatles fan, as a rule I do not like musicals, especially ones in which they eschew dialogue in favor of singing. That all the songs in this one are familiar help, but only so much. I don’t object to newer renditions of classic songs, and in fact enjoyed almost all the big production numbers. But after a while the shiny happy people that inhabit musicals start to get to you – even if they’re pretending to be heart-broken over something or the other. After all, how sad can you be if you’re fit enough to participate in a Broadway production number? And while the Beatles were a prolific band, it does not mean that one has to use practically every song they ever sung. Oh well, this movie is OK if like me, you have four hours to kill and absolutely nothing else to do, but otherwise, I’d simply load the Beatles on to the i-Pod and take a long walk. Much less painful, and definitely more healthy.

On an aside, Evan Rachel Wood displays much wholesome American goodness in this movie. Every time I saw her cherubic face, I couldn’t help thinking to myself, “Veshakari! I know who you hang out with once you get off the sets, missy…”

3. Hamlet
This silent German (yes, the cards were in German with English subtitles) version of Hamlet had a couple of interesting things going for it: a) it cast Hamlet as a woman – the premise was that Hamlet was born a princess, but raised a boy in order to keep the throne b) it came with live music – yes, the music that accompanies a silent movie in this case was performed by a live pianist. Making Hamlet a woman, one felt, could be used to explain so much. Instead it is squandered, only used to work out relatively trivial kinks such as explaining Ophelia’s death (Hamlet pines for Horatio who’s himself interested in Ophelia, and the jealous but cross dressing Hamlet leads Ophelia on and betrays her). The problem is that irrespective of the “liberties” this movie takes with the original – Gertrude is more villainous, Fortinbras is Hamlet’s old college buddy and wants to help reinstate his friend to throne, etc. – one ends up with the exact same end as Shakespeare, aka “everyone dies”. So it all feels a bit pointless at the end of the day.

The highlight of the movie is the chap who plays Claudius. He reminded me of the Frankenstein monster – you can clearly see that someone told him “here, you have to look evil”, and the poor dear took it to heart. So he spends the entire movie wearing liberal helpings of dark eyeshadow and squints at everything and everyone, oozing eeeevil, of course. This brute was easily the most adorable thing about the movie.

4. Le Scaphandre et Le Papillon
This inspiring story of a man who suffers from “ locked-in syndrome“, but goes on to blink out an entire book one alphabet at a time is quite a crowd pleaser. For a moving story, unexpectedly enough, I also found it to be warm and funny. Mathieu Amalric turns in an adequate performance, and Max von Sydow in a small but important role provides the mandatory Kleenex moments you’d expect from such a story. I admit that it is unfair to compare this movie with Mar adentro, but I can’t help it. And in my books, team Amenábar-Bardem easily wins over Schnabel-Amalric. Bardem’s Ramon Sampedro is a force of life even as he battles for his right to die. Moving as Amalric’s Jean-Do is, he is ultimately a silent participant, despite all the voice-overs. Perhaps the difference is simply that one movie seeks to make you think and consider your stance on a controversial topic from multiple angles, while the other merely seeks to tell a good story that might just inspire you. Prepared as I was to have my gut wrung out to dry, I came away merely entertained, and somewhat moved. By all counts, this is a good movie. Only, it isn’t an excellent one.

5. El Orfanato
This otherwise unremarkable horror movie turned out to be a lot of fun because I hadn’t seen it coming. I’d gone in expecting something similar to Pan’s Labyrinth (Guillermo del Toro produced El Orfanato, a fact heavily advertised by the makers of this movie), but was instead treated to a something much darker. Not being a horror fan, I’m unable to compare this movie with other recent movies of this genre. I don’t care for the “so gross it’s scary” stuff – severed limbs, technicolor-body fluids and the like, and fortunately, El Orfanato has very little of this. I do, however, enjoy jumping out my skin because the director just threw another completely unexpected shot at the audience. The NY crowd helped too – at the end of every scary scene, people would laugh out, as a nod to the movie makers for having gotten them that once, until it happened all over again – felt like we were all in it together. Good fun.

6. Lust, Caution (Some spoilers)
Ang Lee’s latest period drama is a gorgeous treat of a movie. Set in 1940s Hong Kong and Shanghai, it follows the intrigues between rebels and collaborators in Japanese occupied territory. The plot feels a tad improbable – it is difficult to imagine that a bunch of students can identify let alone penetrate someone’s who’s apparently a highly placed collaborator so easily. But once you get over that hiccup, it’s beautiful going from there.

In Lust, Caution Tony Leung cures you of whatever hang ups you may have left over from In the Mood for Love and 2046. He plays a character who is difficult to like, let alone fall in love with. Not until the last half hour of the movie does he let you in on the fact that he too is capable of emotions, when he makes a wry comment equating his collaborating with the Japanese with whoring. Till that point, you only think of him as as an opportunist and a monster, something that is heavily suggested by the resistance, and which his own persistent reticence does nothing to dispel. This comment and what follows finally allow both Mak Tai Tai (Wei Tang’s character) and the audience a glimpse into the man. By then, it is almost too late to fall in love with him, but fall Mak Tai Tai does, with tragic consequences.

This movie reminded me not so much of In the Mood for Love as it did of When we were orphans, although the Ishiguro novel takes place about a decade earlier. It is one thing to imagine old world Shanghai, but to watch it, especially as created by someone with an unerring eye for beauty as Lee, is altogether different. I actually wish Lee would use the props left over from this movie to make When We Were Orphans, as I really can’t imagine any one else making a movie from that novel.

A note about the controversial rating this movie received – it is well deserved. But what is even more shocking than the explicit sex is the movie’s one stabbing scene. It almost feels false, little we may have seen in other movies prepares you for this one. The victim seems to take forever to die and every time he emerges from a fresh stab, you wish he would have the decency to just die instead of making us watch him get stabbed once more. More than anything else that comes before or after, this scene reinforces how green these wannabe spies really are. Only one of them – pretty boy Kuang Yu Min played by real life rock star Lee-Hom Wang appears to have zeal enough to kill someone in cold blood. One can’t help thinking that we could have replaced this brutal act with almost anything else – drinking or drugs or any other less gruesome vice – and you’d likely end up with the same outcome. There is one boy who thinks that doing this (whatever “this” is) is the right thing to do, and others join in because they don’t want to be left out or laughed at later, which makes this murder all the more shocking. Some take up cigarettes because of peer pressure, some of these characters stab a man to death.

And with this movie also, I have to disagree with Falstaff. I didn’t find Lust, Caution one bit boring. Especially since I had The Man from London for comparison. Yes, the story takes time to unfold, but at least you don’t spend three quarters of this movie feeling trapped – you could easily amuse yourself trying to guess what the devil the rest of the audience found so amusing. And even if one has to sometimes sit back and watch Wei Tang do little other than ride around in cars or get dressed, I’d much rather watch her than a potato faced man stare at a bunch of people leaving a boat.