Revisiting Sanjeev Kumar’s masterful, must-watch Dastak

DastakSnapshots of Mumbai’s various landmarks, operational mills, crammed roads teeming with double-deckers, towering skyline overlooking rickety slums captioned in a lingering visual of Bombay Central station frame the black and white opening credits of Dastak.

A city of dreams and disparity, where hopes and hardships, strife and success, hostility and harmony, faith and fallacy regularly collide, isn’t easy to call home as the newly married Hamid and Salma soon find out in Rajinder Singh Bedi’s crackerjack directorial debut.

One of the celebrated stalwarts of Urdu progressive writers movement, Bedi’s writing credits include acclaimed classics like Devdas, Madhumati, Mirza Ghalib, Satyakam, Anupma and Abhimaan.

Released in 1970, Dastak is a celluloid adaptation of the Urdu play, Naql-e-Makani he penned during his All India Radio stint in pre-Independence Lahore and chronicles a blameless married couple’s humiliation and horror over ugly prejudices.

Bedi was 50-something when he made Dastak and benefits hugely from Hrishikesh Mukerji’s taut editing and Kamal Bose’s elegant camerawork.

Interestingly, he wrote the dialogues for the 1957 Musafir, Mukerji’s first film as director, which although entirely different in theme and texture, also revolves around a house in Mumbai and three different families renting it consecutively.

Coming back to Dastak, a suave Sanjeev Kumar plays Hamid whereas Film and Television Institute of India alumna Rehana Sultan makes her debut as his homemaker wife Salma. They’ve only recently shifted residence, a definite upgrade from the formerly rented shanty or so as their conversation implies.

DastakOblivious to the history of the disrepute imprinted on their new address, previously inhabited by a notorious prostitute Shamshad Begum (Shakeela Bano Bhopali) now running a brothel a couple of lanes apart, Hamid and Salma weave sweet, sensual dreams of marital bliss. In a space once marked by flesh trade, these two are yet to consummate their marriage deferred by a late night knock on the door, a rude realisation.

Despite their attempts at normalcy, the increasing and demeaning intrusion upon their privacy and peace make Hamid and Salma realise they’re perceived in the same social light as the erstwhile occupant of their abode.

The hypocrisy is unmistakable considering the neighbourhood (represented most keenly in Anwar Hussain’s deceitful paanwala) gossiping and ganging up to disgrace the innocuous duo, as a pair of pimp and prostitute, is slyly orchestrating their stumble for its own personal gain.

Meanwhile, Manmohan Krishna, playing an elderly resident of the adjacent building, sees through their motivations and is the only sensible voice standing up to the vicious mob. Regrettably, a much wary Hamid mistakes his concern for curiosity.

This would take the shape of cringing melodrama and cacophony under run-of-the-mill treatment but Bedi’s restrained approach draws a stinging, sharp picture of Mumbai’s prevailing crudeness and insensitivity as well as the mental toll it takes on the not so hardboiled.

Likewise, these tense episodes do damage Hamid’s psyche to an extent. Bedi goes on to depict how even the most decent of men turn into vile versions of themselves when hit by a sense of futility. Hamid’s manner of protecting his wife is also robbing her off the one luxury she values the most – music, a talent he holds in awe but now forbids Salma from pursuing because of its association to the nautch girls in the neighbourhood.

Suffocated, lonely and the subject of prying eyes across the window, Salma, in one powerful moment of rebellion, strips all her clothing and lies on the bare floor lamenting, “Mai re, main kaa se kahoon pirr apne jiya ki?”

DastakThe despair in her plaint (“Na tadapne ki ijaazat hai na fariyad ki hai. Ghutt ke mar jaon yeh marzi mere sayyad ki hai”) leading up to the aforementioned instance and esoteric visuals of her running across desolate backdrops, convey her pent-up emotions in poetic measure.

Madan Mohan’s National award-winning soundtrack and Majrooh Sultanpuri’s penmanship not only understand the depth of Dastak’s bittersweet scenario but also render it an exquisiteness that surely deserved better memory.

Words fail to encapsulate the magic that is Lata Mangeshkar’s singing of classically rich compositions like Baiyan na dharo and Hum hain mata-e-koocha-o-baazar ki tarah. Mohammad Rafi’s surreal delivery in Tumse kahoon ek baat is no less significant.

Apart from refined melody, Bedi indulges in ample symbolism (caged birds et al) to reveal the inner anguish of his characters, their simmering sexuality. Some of it is disconcerting too.

A shot of Hamida stroking the stove pump to light fire ignites Hamid’s libido and he makes furious love to his wife. The unpleasant nature of the scene, the regret and tears that follow suggest it wasn’t consensual. But the unexpected interlude of romance it unleashes thereafter refuses to confirm this doubt.

Even if life never comes to a standstill the setbacks remain constant. Hamid’s financial condition, a clerical job and scrupulous work ethics, make it nearly impossible to buy a house. Bedi also notes the difficulty posed by a Muslim identity in acquiring accommodation even in the Mumbai of 1970s, how it compels Hamid to lie about his name or borrow money from the sympathetic office secretary (a gorgeous, underused Anju Mahendru).

DastakDastak takes a break from stifling Mumbai to enjoy a breeze of fresh village air in Hamid-Salma’s brief visit to her father. The distraction is designed not only to justify Salma’s claustrophobia in the city but point at the impoverished conditions that compel many a youngsters to leave their hometown for better prospects.

Sanjeev Kumar and Rehana Sultan exude a rare, real intimacy as husband and wife wherein both their tenderness and frustration towards each other colours the authenticity and desperation of their circumstances and an inevitable loss of innocence. It’s easy to feel the plight of the poor pair, devising code words like Bombay Central or staying out till midnight in order to protect themselves as well as their sanity.

At a time when the entire nation was reeling under superstar Rajesh Khanna’s mania, Dastak had little chance at the box-office but, nevertheless, received critical accolades. Both its leads walked away with a National Award honour for their superlative performances.

Unlike Sanjeev Kumar who hit gold with his unhinged turn in Khilona, Sultan’s bolder avatar in Chetna the same year proved detrimental for her career. In an interview to Avijit Ghosh, journalist and author of 40 Retakes: Bollywood Classics You May Have Missed, Sultan shares how Leela Naidu and Mumtaz were contenders for Salma’s role but Bedi picked the newbie over these established actresses.

That is Bedi’s masterful, must-watch Dastak in essence. It rejects conventional ideas of filmmaking to produce a nuanced, uncompromised vision, which slams the inconsistencies and ethics of social structure through ordinary, imperfect people. Yet shows how it’s these very ordinary, imperfect people who battle it in spirit till the very end.

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Review: The new Terminator movie is no fun either!

Terminator GenisysRamming bullets into a pile of magazines, suddenly the rickety movement of his old metallic arm breaks the flow of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s mechanical rhythm. In an attempt to fix it, he knocks his prosthetic limb across the table a few times and continues the task.

The idea behind the scene is to drive Arnie’s ‘old but not obsolete’ credence but it brings to mind the lumbering state of the Terminator franchise, unabashedly relying on its ageing action hero to draw nostalgia-ridden crowds.

Whether or not a story wishes to go further, its success not ingenuity dictates its exploitation. Goes without saying that even after three feeble attempts to match the original Terminator’s glory, the likelihood of more is unavoidable.

Without doubt, director James Cameron created two milestone science-fiction movies, one better than the other. Both — The Terminator (1984) and Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991), fully and fabulously realized on all fronts, gave us characters, catchphrases and chase sequences worthy of popular culture reverence. Moreover, that masterstroke of Schwarzenegger switching from hostile to heroic, halleluiah!

So it’s nice when director Alan Taylor pays tribute to both in an awe-inspiring face-off and finest scene of Terminator Genisys, where the merits of age-defying CGI are truly stupefying. All the same, Terminator 2’s more than two decades old technology is even today unrivalled in slickness and thrill.

Brimming with quotes and references, Terminator Genisys is the fifth one in the series, but expects you to be well versed with only the first two. As if daunted by the original’s extraordinary accomplishments, the first hour plays like a star-struck replica in bland 3D imagery sans the blood or brutality.

In the familiar, Resistance trailblazer John Connor (Jason Clarke) teleports Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) back in time, year 1984 to contact his mother Sarah (Emilia Clarke) and protect her from a Skynet cyborg out to kill her. Only this time Sarah is better equipped thanks to the Terminator T-800 she addresses as, ugh, Pops (Schwarzenegger).

Almost akin to an Interstellar parody, a painfully convoluted discussion on fractured, parallel timelines follows with moments of comical déjà vu for added effect. The only purpose it serves is getting Sarah and Reese to shed their clothing, hop onto a time machine and, voila, Happy 2017.

33 years go by in a jiffy and a grey-haired Pops (luckily he’s too much of a cyborg to whine about the wrinkles or the wait) joins the party and the troika discover the truth about this instalment’s brand new antagonist.

If you’ve seen the trailer, you’ll already know. The moronic marketing mind behind Terminator Genisys thought it’s imperative to announce all its big twists in the promos itself depriving Taylor’s take on the only bit of advantage it really had.

Truth be told, the direction Terminator Genisys means to head in is fairly exciting. Audacious too. But Taylor’s flat, full of loopholes filmmaking and a bunch of lacklustre actors saying shabby lines in crucial parts prove to be its biggest hurdle.

At some point, a bus does a double somersault and dangles dangerously at the edge of Hollywood’s favourite site of destruction – Golden Gate Bridge. But forget fracture, there’s not a scratch on Sarah or Reese; it’s like watching a cartoon in live action, think Tom and Jerry against a liquid metal Mystique all over the place against ear-piercing industrial sounds.

As someone prepping for combat for over a decade, Emilia Clarke can’t even hold a gun convincingly. The Game of Thrones star is fairly decent with her American accent though. There’s also Oscar winner J K Simmons wasted in a random part unworthy of his calibre.

Terminator GenisysJai Courtney’s drab presence and Jason Clarke’s overall phoniness puts all the weight on a reliably humourless Arnie to deliver. He does what he does best and has fun with it. It’s not nearly enough.

What made Terminator 1 and 2 epic is the scale of Cameron’s sophisticated imagination, the menace, panic and unpredictability surrounding his storytelling along with cyborgs, we’d care for, cry for. Devoid of any wizardry, Taylor’s Terminator Genisys is no better than what was churned out afterwards (Rise of the Machines, Salvation).

Schwarzenegger is easily the only attraction, a “relic of a deleted timeline” of this wishy-washy sequel, prequel, reboot, offshoot, whatever. But that’s no reason to overstay one’s welcome, even if it’s an iconic character. Rather especially if it’s an iconic character.

Like an old colleague of his said to him in another movie, “You’ve been back enough.”

Stars: 2

This review was first published on rediff.com.

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Papanasam is a worthy remake of Drishyam

PapanasamIt is difficult to discuss Papanasam without revealing anything though it’s not a murder mystery. Not for the audience anyway.

Despite it having its fair share of twists and slyness, Jeetu Joseph’s Tamil remake of his acclaimed Malayalam drama/thriller Drishyam achieves its true triumph in storytelling — solid storytelling.

What blew my mind about Drishyam is how it extracts intrigue out of the mundane aspects of daily life, how it addresses every doubt that popped in my head, as if the movie could hear my thoughts and, of course, Mohanlal’s performance.

Performance sounds like a vulgar word to describe how beautifully he assumes the role of Georgekutty, an extraordinarily perceptive family man shielding his own from freak circumstances through the knowledge he’s gleaned from movies.

Papanasam doesn’t deviate from the original structure but there is a conscious effort to explain the strategy of Drishyam’s understated intelligence. The ploy more or less works because the events look convincingly premeditated in context of the alibi and as a result the characters better fleshed out.

At its heart, Papanasam is the story of two parents doing everything in their capacity for the sake of their respective children. Part cover up, part police procedural, the story unravels within a cosy community in a sleepy town of Tamil Nadu’s Tirunelveli district. It’s the sort of ambiance where everyone knows everyone else and Suyambulinga (Kamal Haasan) a cable television operator gets along fine with everybody barring a corrupt constable of the local police station.

A school dropout, Suyambulingam is conscious of his lack of education but proud of his self-made stature, something he constantly points out to his slightly more educated wife (Gautami) and their two school-going daughters (Niveda Thomas, Esther Anil).

Frugal with his money, he’s mad about movies. The latter brought back memories of Pierce Brosnan’s cinephile detective in TV series Remington Steele and his penchant to solve cases citing movie references.

The three-hour long Papanasam uses a good deal of time to familiarise us with these disarming characters and their happy-go-lucky lifestyle. Meanwhile, there’s another family contending for our attention — Inspector General Geetha (Asha Sarath) and her husband (Anant Mahadevan). What links them to Suyambulingam is something I recommend you discover on your own.

But remember, suspense isn’t the objective of Joseph’s script. It’s not so much the nature of offence as the ethics and acumen behind camouflaging it. Papanasam views crime as a point of view in an exceptional scenario but is sensitive enough to acknowledge the guilt arising from this conflict of interests.

Most fascinating is the angle Joseph’s script picks to focus on what could turn into a generic whodunit. Instead he designs a neat ruse to orchestrate a riveting tussle between one person’s brilliant ability to plan ahead of his pursuers and another’s knack for instincts that come frustratingly close.

I have not read the Japanese novel Devotion of Suspect X but watched the 2008 film based on the same. Decidedly dissimilar in motivation, theme and mood, there’s no denying the similarity in the alibi employed by a lonely Mathematician genius and Joseph’s inspiration in Drishyam and Papanasam. Only here the stakes are far more emotional and heartrending.

If I were to compare, I still like Drishyam better but Papanasam is a laudable runner up even if somewhat self-aware. Joseph’s is a quality script that can go hardly wrong. Most of the times it doesn’t.

Yet the restraint, rawness and tension of Drishyam, especially during the tormenting torture scenes is downgraded to accommodate high drama and highlight the hero in its leading man.

Also, some of the English subtitles are plain comic. Sample these: Hey, my crackpot dear my handsome hulk forever? / Is being a Scrooge an encumbrance?

What it does better the second time around is cast more effective actors for certain roles. Niveda brings wonderful vulnerability as Haasan’s first born and it’s to a first-rate Gautami’s credit that they never look like a make-believe family.

Kamal Haasan in PapanasamI was pleasantly surprised by Anant Mahadevan’s excellent portrayal of a quietly suffering father disgusted by the tough interrogation methods adopted by cops. Kalabhavan Mani is another scene-stealer as the constable harbouring a fatal grudge.

Joseph repeats many of his cast members like Asha Sarath as IG Geetha and reveals a better understanding of her anguish than in Drishyam.

And then there is Kamal Haasan. Mohanlal set the bar unreachably high but a valiant Haasan gives it his own fresh take. He brings in his knowledge as a filmmaker who knows more than the script. And his characteristic lack of inhibition blazes through its sentimental climax scene.

Yes, it’s a showy delivery but given the tone of Papanasam, it works. So does the movie.

Stars: 3.5

This review was first published on rediff.com.

 

 

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