Monday, September 07, 2009

Watching Halla Bol

I just finished watching halla bol. The inspiration came from an evening at Safdar Hashmi Marg in Delhi and remembering the name of the street play he was murdered performing – Halla Bol. But the movie is not a biopic on Hashmi as I naively expected. In fact, what had struck me the irony of how the government which had had Hashmi murdered in cold blood in public view, and never had had to face any difficult questions for it, had now so graciously granted a road’s name to the man – I believe that these rich narratives will only be discovered two hundred years from now. Instead it’s blatantly about the Jessica Lal murder case, where a rag-to-riches actor Sameer Khan and a witness to the murder rediscovers his conscience and fights the “system” to speak the truth. The last scene is a tribute to the memory of Hashmi tho’ – and despite being delivered with the bollywood stridency of Sukhwinder shouting in the background, is well rendered and a fitting tribute to the courage of that man.

I have followed Santoshi with a slient wait – waiting for the time when he would rise above his Bollywood mindset completely and do justice to the bold themes he chooses. In Daamini, a movie where the script held the promise of making it one of the most important movies of those times, he squandered the chance when he chose the thousand-expressions-a-minute Meenakshi Sheshadri, whom I’ve heard he was desperately wooing then, to essay the role of a woman who undergoes a thousand-revolutions within and that multiplied meant a million expressions every minute of the movie – like watching Jim Carrey essay the role of a neurotic hyperactive man with multiple-personalities; thus he traded the promise of celestial fame for a celestial lay – something I would have done too. I liked China Gate, despite Mamta Kulkarni, a more faithful copy of Seven Samurai than Sholay, even though he drew the Hindu-Muslim conflict in Amrish Puri and Naseer to the point where the audience wept every time they came on the screen together.

Raj Kumar Santoshi somehow reminds me of Sudhir Misra in terms of the themes he chooses. But somewhere his desperation to keep it mainstream makes him keep committing mini hara-kiris in between.

In his working, a more apt comparison would be Vidhu Vinod Chopra. The difference between the ranting VVC (this is the VVC network vrought to you vy Johnson Vavy Powder) and RKS is that the former is a technically-proficient mostly-mediocre person who fancies himself a genius and blames the junta for not understanding his pathetic mix of “commercial art” (in Mission Kashmir, Hrithik, to pave way for his eventual deliverance, is a feared terrorist who never kills the soldiers but just kicks them around – and with that condition he flushes the movie into the realm of the comically absurd and then expects the audience to lap it as serious cinema). RKS is a man with genuine talent for finding good scripts and characterisation and yet he fails to live up to the promise of his scripts by riddling it with many mediocre plot-points, letting some characters become caricatures, bad music, and inability to escape the mental clutches of Bollywood masala.

Santoshi’s success has always come in the subplots of the powerful plots he squanders. In Daamini, Sunny stumbled halfway into the movie as a has-been alcoholic lawyer and lit the screen. In China Gate, it was the Amrish-Puri-Jagdeep chemistry which was the crowning point (a similar chemistry was evident in the now forgotten Muskuraahat, a remake from some SouthIndian movie starring Revathi and the launch pad of the producer-son hero). Even though these themes work, the movie hinging on the central plot gets lost.

The subplot here is Guruji.

Here, the director very intelligently chooses Pankaj Kapoor for the role (Any other country, and Pankaj Kapoor would have had the top billing, above Ajay Devgun and Vidya Balan.) It is Pankaj Kapoor who elevates the movie to its moments of greatness every time he is on the screen. (He even makes a re-entry into the script in the fashion of Daamini’s Sunny Deol when the hero hits the nadir of no-hope ala Daamini.) Pankaj’s character too is very well fleshed out. A dacoit who had his change of heart while slipping into a play performance (but did it have to be the totally literal ‘Raja Harishchandra’?) while evading the police and became a theatre actor – a nice and full sketch except for the RHC part which made his eyes water even after decades (maybe a nukkad-naatak on second chance would have sounded more credible.)

If I see the movie a second time, I will keep fast forwarding the movie till I see Pankaj Kapoor on the screen, watch it till his exit and then hit the remote.

I wonder why RKS lets subplots dominate his Bollywoodishly-rendered plots. Subplots are supposed to bolster the central plot, to add nuances and dimensions to it, and not to take away the spotlight from them completely. The central plot and dialogues is like any other Bollywood movie. Since the hero is a Muslim who marries a Hindu, vignettes from his past force down the harmony of his M parents with their Hindu neighbours though, and this is a Bollywoodian dichotomy only the Indians can understand, by Bollywood standards it is actually subtly done. Vidya Balan’s character is a character in wait to play the role of the wife-standing-behind-the-husband-on-dock in the latter part and the romantic bits in the start are recommended to be followed while talking dirty to a stranger over the phone and cutting your toenails. Anjan Waagle Srivastava essays the role of the father with the same innovation with which Alok Nath essays his. Ditto for Sulabha Arya. * as the actor's secretary repeats an old act, but you don’t mind it, since he does it with the same finesse as he’s done it earlier.

Actually, the choice of characters points to the same lapses of imagination which plague RKS. He takes fine actors by the roles they have already essayed instead of discovering a Langda tyagi in Saif and Deepak Dobriyal in Rajoh. If there had been a grandfather, it would have been AK Hangal who would have midway through the movie made a heart-wrenching statement about fighting for ethics to the hero while the other characters stood around, heads hung in shame, and then left after hearing the azaan.

The new element is Darshan Jariwal, who takes over from Amrish Puri to play the villain of the same mold as those of Ghayal and Daamini. There’s even a tribute to ‘Jhatakna bhool jaoge’ with a ‘ting’y confrontation between Ajjay Deol and darshan Puri. Darshan is totally out of elements – the more I see of this actor, the more I realise that earnestness is not quite a perfect substitute for aptitude.

The movie moves from one screaming level to another, like all BW fare. When the hero in the start is a dissipated soul, within minutes he lies to old out-of-luck directors, screws starlets, tramples on other people’s careers and acts like Salman Khan all the time. Then after a murder most unsubtly-rendered his pangs are still suitably shown. But once his isolation starts, the hysteria of the world against him becomes absurd. The politician dad incites the public opinion against the hero and he’s thrashed unrelentingly by the press and the public; Prabhu Chawla does himself no favours in a badly-scripted talk show where he attacks the actor for changing his stand and speaking out. I feel a lot of people would have dismissed the movie here. Since when did people start believing in politicians, other than the managed goons who burn books and thrash couples on their behalf? The day YSR’s chopper got lost, discussion forums were flush with gloating glee that a politician, usually surrounded by more police than our smaller towns, is in any sort of physical danger. In fact, Jessica Lal case has brought to fore the estrangement of public opinion with the feudal system – the politicians, the police and the ineffectual judiciary. A grave error, I think.

Also the irony hit me again when the movie, after showing for half an hour how easily the politician schemes a superstar’s reputation to the dustiest and brownest of dust in weeks, despairs over a street-play performance announced to be performed. Ironic considering how easily Hashmi’s own death was effected and how easily the dust of its protest and public memory swept away and buried beneath the well-paved road bearing his name.

Part of RKS’s dilemma, and people like him who want to inject some discussion on our society in the distorted escapist world of cinema which surrounds us all the time, is the total dumbing of the audience that BW has effected. In a scene where the hero is approached by some Muslim-brethern to give his victimization a communal angle, the hero rises screaming to the duo, caricaturised from the beard to their tummy and the gamchha on their shoulders, telling them it would be a disgrace to cite his Muslimness as the cause of his being targeted (as opposed to his standing to a system of lies and feudal tyrannies) when the PM is a Sikh and the Prez a Muslim. Loud as this scene is – how else do you communicate a scene to the Indian masses – I write this after reading a report where a Mumbai college-student derides HallaBol as being too arty.(!)

In the end, Halla Bol is a movie which disappoints like a book where the author, in haste, dissipates a good plot and idea. And yet I would rather read it to the end, perhaps even buy it, than a sanitized bestseller.


Pankaj said...

you liked the movie?

Bland Spice said...

In sum, I did. Tho' I fast-forwarded certain bits.