City of God – Lijo Jose Pellissery’s moving hyperlink New Generation Malayalam film may have been ahead of its time

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After seeing the fantastic Malayalam film Angamaly Diaries last week, I couldn’t wait to seek out director Lijo Jose Pellissery’s other films.  City of God was the one recommended to seek out first, and glory be, it’s on Google Play for rental and purchase.  At $4.99 to buy, I snatched it right up.

City of God is part of the New Generation of Malayalam films with a hyperlink non-linear narrative of four interlocking stories.  It came out within months of Traffic, the first of the new wave Malayalam cinema, but City of God was pulled within a week of release.  It may have been a bit ahead of its time.  It felt much grittier and more violent than Traffic, and isn’t really suited to a broad family audience.  I felt Traffic relied a bit too much on the audience’s familiarity of all the actors in that multi-starrer, and I didn’t really get to know any character that well.  I liked City of God much more.

A signature of Malayalam New Wave films is an accident, and coincidences that bring people together and set off the events of the film.  City of God starts with a horrific car crash.  Prithviraj is driving a car that crashes into a street light pole, after hitting a motorscooter with a young couple.  There’s also a van full of toughs that pile out to confront Prithviraj after the crash, and then we flash back.  We see the events of the film from several perspectives, replaying various key scenes from the point of view of different characters.  This is a movie where you have to pay attention a bit to catch on to what is going on.

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Prithviraj is sort of a capo or enforcer for his rich friend Sony (Rajeev Pillai).  He gets lots of very cool fight scenes, mostly just kicking and punching his way out of various jams, but in the photo above wielding a firehose like a urumi sword!  Prithviraj looked pretty bulked up, and this film was around the time of the filming of Aiyyaa.  Hubba hubba.  It was super fun to see Prithviraj be a sort of gangster tough guy, smacking people down first, and asking questions later.

Sony is obssessed with a young actress, Surya (Rima Kallingal).  He had a romance with her in the past, but his parents made him abandon her, and he’s trying to get her back, even though she’s married to an abusive husband.  Surya is a big actress, and one of the big musical numbers is cleverly one she’s doing for a film within the film.  The director was very clever about the songs.  There  was this one during a film shoot, one big one at a wedding, and then a couple more playing on a radio and so on.

There’s a complicated land deal going on between some corrupt business types, Sony, and some mafia.  Prithviraj is sent out to “deal” with one guy, and his wife then vows revenge.

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My favorite story line involved the migrant Tamil laborers who were working on the building project for Sony.  My reader Mohzin let me know that half this film is in Tamil, including half the songs!  He said that the Malayalam audience didn’t need subtitles for the Tamil speaking parts.  The love story of Swarnavel (Indrajith) and Marathakam (Pavarthy) is just so wonderful.  It’s the heart of the whole film.  Marathakam has fled Tamil Nadu and her abusive husband.  Swarnavel obviously loves her, but holds back as she is already married.  Marathakam’s friend Lakshmi (Rohini from Baahubali!) urges her to marry again, but Rohini has other ideas than poor Swarnavel.  She tells both the other thinks of them as either brother or sister, and so Marathakam, heart broken, agrees to marry a supposedly wealthy man.  Then comes my all time favorite scene of the whole film.  The  cops come and arrest her husband, and then she finds the drunk Swarnavel to chastise him for letting her marry this thief.  Then the sparks just FLY once they realize they don’t view each other as siblings AT ALL!  When he breaks off her mangalsutra — so hot!  Another favorite thing is that she won’t kiss him as he’s drunk, and sobers him up with a bucket full of water over his head!

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This is the couple from the opening scene accident who were on the motor scooter.  Why they were so frantically racing on that bike gradually is revealed.

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Prithviraj doesn’t get a full on romance in the film, but he does rescue a damsel in distress and gives her very swoony longing looks through the rearview mirror.  Mostly, in this film, he just gets to kick ass in very cool fights, and he seems much more savvy and smart than anyone around him.  But then Prithviraj usually does seem like the smartest one in the room.

The tone of the film can change dramatically from scene to scene,as we’re going from one character’s point of view to the next.  There are several side characters who have comedic moments — quite a few sort of comedy uncle characters.  The main actors were all pretty good, but the guy playing Sony didn’t make much of an impression on me.  Prithviraj, Pavarthy and Indrajith were the standouts. Indrajith stole the whole movie, in my opinion.  I don’t really remember him from Classmates, but he’s in Amen, which I’m going to try to watch next.  Pavarthy looks so completely different from any other character I’ve seen her play, that I honestly did not recognize her until I saw her name in the end credits.  Once I went back and rewatched that HOT love scene song, I could tell it was her, maybe with darker makeup?  Quite the different look than in Bangalore Days or Charlie!

The cinematography was quite interesting.  Some cool different angles to many shots, and great editing.  The fights didn’t feel quite as intimate as the recent Angamaly Diaries.  There was a steadicam being shook up, I guess to  imitate the Bourne films, but it just made me dizzy.  It worked in Angamaly Diaries, and didn’t work for me here in the same way.

As I said earlier, I didn’t really enjoy the hyperlink in Traffic, as there were too many shallow stories that weren’t developed.  Here, there were four key stories that interconnected, and the characters were more fleshed out.  This film can be gritty and violent like Kammatti Paadam or Angamaly Diaries.  Maybe the audience 6 years ago wasn’t quite ready for an innovative film like this.  Angamaly Diaries is still the better film, but it was really fascinating to see this director developing his signature style.

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Mumbai Police – Prithviraj’s stunning performance in this film gobsmacked me

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I was absolutely gobsmacked by the amazing performance of Prithviraj in the Malayalam crime mystery drama Mumbai Police.  I had seen Prithviraj in a stellar if unflashy supporting role in the Hindi film Aurangzeb, also as a cop.  Then I saw Classmates as I was told how influential it is in modern Malayalam cinema.  He was very solid also in the romantic drama Ennu Ninte Moideen.  I had been impressed by his body of work, but nothing prepared me for his incredible performance in Mumbai Police.  Essentially, he’s almost playing a double role.

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In the opening scene, Tony (Prithviraj) is driving down an empty street at night in his police jeep.  He is speaking into a phone saying, “I have found the culprit.” in Malayalam and then repeats it in English.  Suddenly a refrigerator falls off a truck in front of him, and he swerves and the jeep rolls over.  The next scene has a bewildered scarred Tony in a car with Farhan who tells Tony he is his best friend.  Tony has lost all his memory, and this fellow cop friend and the doctor are the only people who know that.  Tony was in the middle of the investigation of the murder of a fellow policeman and the political and press pressure is intense for the case to be solved.

Tony doesn’t know who is friend and who is foe.  After Farhan drops him off at his apartment, Tony is attacked by several men, and is stunned that he can quickly dispatch all of them.  He asks his doctor if he can really return to work, and she has him solve a sudoku puzzle.  She explains that before the accident he was “Person A”, and after he lost his memory he is “Person B”.  He may have different likes and preferences as Person B, but all the skills he learned as Person A, any languages he learned, he will still know.  She brings up that Steve Wozniak lost his memory the same way for five weeks after a plane accident.  (All the computers in the film are Macs).

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So, Tony returns to work, bluffing his way through his interactions with subordinates and poring over the investigation notes.  He learns the murder victim was his good friend Aryan, and Tony, Farhan and Aryan were known as the “Mumbai Police” since they had served there together before returning to Kerala.

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The films Memento and Ghajini deal with short term memory loss, but Mumbai Police reminded me more of the old Harrison Ford movie Regarding Henry.  In Regarding Henry, Harrison Ford plays a hard charging lawyer who loses his memory and has almost a complete personality change after being shot.  He’s two different people and his family has to adjust to the “new” Henry.

Tony at first wants to get back to what he was before, but in the course of reinvestigating the murder, he discovers that he was quite the asshole. He was confident and arrogant, with a certain swagger, but his staff walked on eggshells around him waiting for him to explode.  There is a scene where Tony is questioning a possible witness, and grabs the guy’s wife and manhandles her, molesting her in front of everyone.  His female subordinate looks on in complete disgust at his abuse of power.  And we in the audience had been falling for this super competent cop, and then his darkness slaps us in the face.

Gradually, Tony finds that the murder happened from a specific kind of sniper gun from a nearby building to the murder parade ground.  Aryan was about to be decorated with a medal for bravery and his speech is cut short by the bullet to the heart.  Tony was the one who actually deserved the medal, but was letting Aryan take the credit.  Tony’s team lose confidence in him because they can see that he had steered the investigation to protect someone.  And you sense, that maybe it was Tony himself.  But WHY??  It makes no sense!

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The last 20 minutes of the film are shocking.  Yes, the film has been out for three years, but I’m not going to spoil it, in case you, dear reader, have not seen it yet.  I was sitting there with my mouth hanging open.  It’s Six Sense or Crying Game level shocking and I wouldn’t spoil the reveal in those films either.  Prithviraj in those final scenes had a level of acting that was just so beyond anything I had ever seen him do.   He is raw, completely vulnerable and just devastating.

The script of this film is put together like clockwork, written by the team Bobby-Sanjay who also wrote Traffic.  A lot of Indian films can feel like they have slap dash scripts, or maybe had no written script upon filming (ahem), but this was almost like a Hitchcock film in how it was so carefully crafted.  Solid directing by  Rosshan Andrrew, and a nice moody soundtrack.  The supporting players are all good, but none really stood out to me as exceptional.  What is extraordinary is Prithviraj’s performance and he gave his all for this film.  Everyone needs to see this superb tour de force movie.

Four and a half stars out of five, and now one of my all-time favorite Malayalam films.

Only if you’ve already seen the film and know the surprise ending, read the Don’t Call It Bollywood analysis of the film which has tons of spoilers.

Udta Punjab -A Triumph. A triumph of film making, acting and most importantly, over the censor board

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I saw Udta Punjab on my birthday which may not have been the best idea.  Because it’s a very dark film.  It’s taken me some time to process it and mull it over.  I’m really impressed with the film making of writer/director Abhishek Chaubey.  I enjoyed his film Ishquiya, and he was also a writer on Kaminey and Omkara.  This film straddles the issue of drugs in the Punjab (the title means Punjab’s High or Punjab’s Flying) by telling the stories of four people affected by it.

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Alia Bhatt is a field worker who comes across a packet of drugs from Pakistan.  Shahid Kapoor is a coke addicted rapper rock star who sings about drugs.  Kareena Kapoor is a saintly doctor who runs a drug clinic, hands out needles and speaks out against the drug problem.  And then there’s Diljit Dosanjh who plays a cop, complicit in looking the other way and taking bribes until he realizes that his younger brother is an addict.

This reminded me immediately of the Hollywood film Traffic that told the story of how the Mexican drug cartels impact four people.  I actually have not seen that Oscar winning film, but I did see the BBC series it was based on, Traffik which dealt with drugs from Pakistan in the UK, and it’s a British politician’s daughter who is the addict.  The story of Traffic/Traffik and Udta Punjab are not the exact same plot, but the intention is the same — show the impact through four different characters involved in the drug crisis in different levels.  And show how the problem is very political.  That is overt in Udta Punjab, and that’s why the Indian Censor Board demanded 89 cuts.

Abhishek Chaubey fought back, with the backing of other filmmakers and took it to the High Court.  In the end, the only cut and change was re-editing a scene where Shahid’s rock star urinates all over his audience at a concert.  Which we saw in the trailer!!  I’m so glad this film was released on time and that it is basically exactly what the filmmakers wanted to show us.  There was such a rush that the subtitles on the copy I saw still had some copy errors – when characters sang the subtitles were supposed to be italicized, but we saw typed out <i>.

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I don’t want to spoiler the movie.  The performances were amazing.  Kareena Kapoor was well cast as the cool, collected doctor.  I wasn’t surprised that she was good.  After the bomb of Shaandaar (which I did enjoy parts of), Alia and Shahid are back with a bang.  Shahid in Udta Punjab is acting at the levels he reached in Kaminey and Haider.   His character is a rock star.  He’s larger than life at nearly every moment, but he’s not just a comic caricature – Shahid manages to find some nuance and depth in the quiet moments, like when he’s arrested for lewd behavior and is thrown into a cell filled with criminals.

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Alia Bhatt just keeps getting better and better.  I thought she was a lightweight when I first saw her in Student of the Year, and she is very good in romantic comedy roles.  But when she’s in a drama like Highway, she can really pull out the stops with some amazing scenes.  And there are even more show stoppers in Udta Punjab.  Horrible things happen to her in this movie, and it is her indomitable spirit that carries us through.  I was stunned at what happens to her and how she just perseveres to the end.

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But Diljit Dosanjh’s humble policeman was the revelation of the film to me.  Diljit is big star in Punjabi films, but I have not seen him before Udta Punjab.  I have had Jatt and Juliet recommended to me, and I’m definitely going to seek it out now.  He was adorable in his timid romance with Kareena Kapoor’s doctor.  He wants to be the hero, and show her he can make a difference.  He’s trying to save his drug addict younger brother, as their father has died and he is the head of the house.  He has amazing quiet everyman screen presence and then can be explosive when an action scene calls for it.

This is a film that left me stunned, as it has realism like you rarely see in Hindi cinema.  It gives you a lot to think about.  And it lays bare just how big the drug problem apparently is in Punjab.  Udta Punjab already garnered a lot of press and talk just because of the censor fight.  I hope now that everyone can see for themselves the content of the film, that it will spur conversations about the issues raised in the film.

Four and a half out of five stars.

If you don’t mind spoilers, or if you’ve seen the film, I urge you to read Margaret Redlich’s excellent analysis on her blog Don’t Call It Bollywood.  She delves much deeper into the film than I have here.

 

 

Traffic (2011) Film Review – the start of Malayalam New Wave Cinema

Rajesh Pillai‘s Malayam film Traffic (2011) is a hyperlink movie.  We get small glimpses into the lives of several characters, and learn over the course of the film how they are all connected to each other.  DontCallitBollywood has a great discussion of what hyperlink movies are, and analysis of this film.  Because of her writeup, I decided to check out this movie, that was also recommended many times on the Quora post.

Traffic was also evidently a seminal movie in the New Wave Cinema or Next Generation movement in Malayalam cinema because of its urban setting, vs. the traditional rural village, and young fresh faces outside of the star system.

Traffic most reminds me of the hyperlink Hollywood film Crash, which also touched on serious urban themes and issues.

 

Traffic, as you can imagine, starts with a traffic accident, and then backs up the narrative a bit to fill us in on the characters involved.  We have a young man who is starting his first day on the job as a journalist off to interview a big movie star.  A young woman being followed by some rowdies on motorbikes.  The victim of the crash goes into a coma, and the doctors bring up a young thirteen year old girl, who desperately needs a heart transplant.  And that’s the hook of the film.  Getting that heart on a two hour drive through various towns and urban populated areas.

We flashback and learn about a police officer who has been disgraced by a bribe.  He volunteers to drive the heart to try to redeem himself in the eyes of his family and neighbors.  There’s the police commander who thinks it just can’t be done, and then coordinates all the road closures necessary from a command center.  And most importantly we learn about a movie star on the day of his premiere — it turns out to be his daughter who is very ill.  The young journalist  is set to interview this star, and he has a romance with a young divorced woman.

It’s quite unusual to see a young divorcee in Indian films, and that is one of the key plot points that signifies this film as New Wave.  The filmmakers set out to make a quite different film.

I loved the glimpses into the life of the Malayalam movie star.  We see flashbacks of him being too busy for his family, and my favorite scene of the whole movie is when he is being interviewed on the radio while his daughter and wife roll their eyes at his answers.  The daughter hands the interviewer a paper with some questions — “What is the name of my daughter’s favorite teacher?  Who is her best friend?”  And so on because she knows that will trip him up.

The second half of the movie is mostly taken up with the action of  driving that police car at 100 kph or whatever it was to get the heart to the girl on time.  And the action scenes were great.  There’s a big twist right at the interval that had me gasp out loud.  It really shocked me what one character did when he heard some awful news.  And what he’s going to do next sets up much of the tension and conflict.

As Margaret points out in her take on Traffic, this is a movie about detours and second chances for many of the characters.  It has a very interesting script, unlike most Indian films, and the action towards the end is very well done.

But my problem with the film is that since there are so many characters, I couldn’t really connect emotionally with any of them.  And I really thought afterwards about why this film seemed to have such a strong reaction in Kerala, but I didn’t feel the same way about it.  And part of it may be that just about every actor in the film I have never seen before.  Only the young journalist, I had seen in Ohm Shanti Oshana.

Hyperlink movies in Hollywood like the silly He’s Just Not That Into You or Valentine’s Day have a bevy of stars and some new actors thrown in.

 

When you have Jennifer Aniston, Ben Affleck and Bradley Cooper in a movie, you know these actors.  There’s a shorthand to their characters, and an instant rapport with the audience.

And I didn’t have that with the actors in the Malayalam Traffic that maybe the Mayali audience did.  So, I give it three and a half stars out of five.  I admire the film, but I didn’t love it.  Rajesh Pillai also directed the Malayalam film Mili, which I also admired for being so female centric, but didn’t love.  Bangalore Days and the Malayalam films that came after Traffic owe a debt to Traffic, but Bangalore Days is the superior film.  Fewer characters, and you get emotionally drawn in to their stories much more.

Interestingly, when I was looking up links for this version of Traffic, I discovered that the same director made a Hindi version of Traffic that is going to be released May 6th!  And here, we have Jimmy Shergill as the police commander and Manoj Bajpayee as the police officer who volunteers to make the drive to redeem himself.  See, I’m instantly in!  Because these actors I already have a relationship with from many, many movies.  The film has the exact same plot, but with action “enhancements” which I’m very curious about.  Same director, Rajesh Pillai, who tragically died earlier this year, so this is his last film.  Instead of driving to Chennai, as in the real life case the movie is based on, the drive is from Pune to Mumbai.