Director: Ananth Narayan Mahadevan
I am writing this as a film aficionado, a lover of quality films. I haven’t written many film reviews, but am attempting this to bring here the experience of watching the movie, which, to my mind, was a significant experience. In my earlier days, I used to be a lover of good films and have seen the best film-makers from Fellini, Kurosawa, Ray, Irving Stone, Majid Majidi to Indian film-makers like Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Aravindan, Mrinal sen, Muzzafar Ali, and such like. As a person with literary aspirations these films and the subjects on which they were made triggered in me a hunger to know more about people, their lives. I used to go in search of good films when they were playing in the city. In those days there was the AIR auditorium which used to exhibit the best films culled from around the world and I used to be a constant presence in their shows.
But over the years I have become disillusioned by Hindi cinema and have stayed away completely from it. It’s loud, it’s badly sound engineered, the lighting is too harsh, the plots are hackneyed and the script lacks ingenuity. Even films that are hailed as art films haven’t risen above dramatic influences and never have scaled the rungs of cinematic medium.
Disclosure: Ananth Narayan Mahadeven and I have worked in the same organisation, but we have never met. Later, I met him online and we became virtual friends on Facebook. At that time I was recruited as his replacement in a publishing organisation and, sadly, I turned out to be a poor replacement. My boss would praise him too much, proving his talents in from those formative years.
So I am all excited as I sit in the hall waiting for the ads to finish and the film to begin. This is the first film of Mahadevan that I am watching I don’t know if he, the director, would live up to my expectations. It has a dark foreboding opening. The sub titles in English were an advantage in that I could understand the film better. What followed, I confess, wasn’t disappointment but one of my truly good cinematic experiences, excelling in all aspects of film making like acting, sound, music, lighting, et al.
It is to Mahadevan’s credit that he has put together such a talented team and inspired them to perform. Sometimes directors can be control freaks who would psyche even good actors to give their worst performances. Mahadevan’s control over the narrative was apparent from the opening shot. Slumdog Millionaire won Oscars but was a hotch potch of a film. This one is many times better in that it deals with an epoch and in a way that is both sensitive and nostalgic. Towards the end, I was moved to tears. I don’t know if this is because I am sentimental these days or because what I saw in the movie moved me to tears.
The film deals with Das in his entirety, his fight for recognition as a freedom fighter, his approaching Alzheimer, his disappointments dragging him into a secluded chasm of his mind. The very act of visiting several government offices with their petty politics can be nerve wracking to any ordinary citizen. Perhaps, this according to detractors of the director could be the film’s flaw, but in dealing with the whole personality of Gour Hari this is integral to the plot. Gour Hari emerges as a hero. He even clings to his post as secretary of the housing society – despite criticism - to prove a point. To make a film on a living person’s life and not to fall prey to clichés is a wonderful achievement. Credit should also go to novelist and poet CP Surendran’s scripting skills, realistic portrayal of characters, which makes a big difference to the authenticity of the film.
It’s a mark of Indian society that we do not allow talented people to rise above petty feuding. That’s why even a Night Shyamalan would have remained a maker of corporate films and ad films in our society. So the bad press the film has received from some quarters is demeaning and is a shame on us. Elsewhere Mahadevan would have been praised and given his due among the greats of cinema. I am going as far as to suggest that it be sent to the Oscars.
Vinay Phatak shines as Gour Hari. He gives that extra feeling to the character with some under-stated acting. It’s obvious that he is giving the role everything and his talent holds a candle to and exceeds that of many other character actors in Hindi films. Matching his elegance is Ranvir Shorey as the newspaper journalist who champions his cause. Ranvir, hair carelessly tousled, lives the part of a journalist. I don’t know the dusky girl who plays his side-kick but she also does a commendable job.
Sen’s role is deglamourised but she compensates with talent and involvement. She doesn’t use make-up and it’s towards the end when she lets it fly at the housing society members that the full power of her acting unleashes and the shakti in her as a woman is palpable. She is a remarkable presence throughout the film, acting vulnerable and strong as the situation demands.
Resul Pookutty displays his excellent skills as sound designer. The film is a sound and music aficionado’s delight, even each guitar chord can be delineated from the sound track. When Gour Hari’s son strums his long-neglected guitar, the string breaks, and the sound reverberates in the silent movie theatre. I have had some experience in this aspect. One night a string on my guitar broke and I was aroused in shock from deep sleep by the echoing sound, a loud twang in the night’s silence. Just the act of thinking about a guitar and building it into the plot is an act of genius, according to me.
The film has its light moments, too, in the form of the official (Satish Kaushik) asking if Orissa is in Bengal. When Gour Hari goes to meet the MLA the security man played by Bharat Dhabolkar asks his name and he says he is Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. Dabolkar’s character may not even know who Gandhi is, so with a dead pan expression on his face he announces Gour Hari as Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.
I have heard it said in interviews with great icons of cinema that it is important to see that a “set should not look lit.” Hindi films just ignore this aspect of lighting sets. For them the set must dazzle with a hundred blazing lights with the result that the characters’ expressions are lost. In outdoor scenes there are a hundred reflectors and the eyes hurt to look at the screen. It’s a wonderful example of Mahadevan’s talent that he hasn’t resorted to over-lighting like other Hindi directors. I think other directors should learn from him.
All said and done, a finely crafted film, a beautifully construed and written film, a film that should go into the annals of Indian film making as another milestone. If I was a juror I would nominate it to go to the Oscars and would wish Vinay Phatak, or, Konkona Sen to win the award for best actor and Mahadevan for best director in the foreign films category.