Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Sarkar Raj - aur nahi bas, aur nahi

There are some existential questions that people struggle with throughout their lives. Here are a few of them (readers please add)
  1. Why can't airport trolleys move in a straight line?
  2. Why cant you find an ATM when you need it most, when otherwise you keep seeing them everywhere?
  3. Where do all the frogs go for the rest of the year when its not raining?
  4. Having kept a careful eye on milk on the gas for ten full minutes, why does it boil over EXACTLY when you look away for precisely 15 seconds?
And so on.... Now a new question has got added to this enduring list - why can't Ram Gopal Varma resist the temptation of making a sequel ? RGV should consider himself lucky that MAD magazine doesn't bother about Indian movies, else the MAD Sarkar Raj special issue would have been a collector's item. Not to mention that the issue would have been infinitely more engrossing than the movie. Why so? Well, thats simple. Anything would be more engrossing than Sarkar Raj.
To be fair to RGV, the plot is actually good. Very relevant too; smart of him to think of this politico-industrial plot in today's times. But Alas! What could have been a compelling keeps-you-on-edge-of-the-seat movie, this one has become a damp squib.
Fortunately, the second half is tolerable for may reasons. First and foremost, the story actually moves. It helps you to come out of a yawning first half. But wait, you don't actually yawn through the first half, but thats only because of the jarring background score, thanks to Baapi-Tutul. I think they have redefined the term 'background music' - essentially by forgetting that it is supposed to be, well, in the background. There are times when the music score tries to become the lead character in the movie. Other times, the music has nothing to do whatsoever with what's on the screen. And not to forget, there is the constant hammering overdose of Govinda Govinda Govindaaaaaaa. It has been overdone so much that it has completely negated the effect it had in Sarkar. Remember how it was used when Shankar was running for his life through the fishermen's village? Well, this time it is all pervading and loses its impact entirely, becomes a distracting element, in fact. There is another reason for the second half becoming watchable. During the interval, some kind soul skipped the popcorn and coffee and went and told the cameraman to stand steady!! The only way I can describe the camera work in the first half is 'epileptic'. Less said the better. The dialogues are not dialogues really. The characters don't talk as you and I do. All of them, with only one exception. Shankar's new bodyguard - who doesn't have a single line in the movie! The people in Sarkar Raj converse by way of an exchange of 'quotable quotes' that often amounts to a lot of gobbledegook . I need to find out who was the screenplay writer's English grammar teacher in school. She must have been unduly strict with him and must have surely given him punishing homework like "write the sentence in active and passive voice both at least 500 times". I mean, how would you react if you heard two people constantly talking like this?

Raja - So shall we open the lock with this key?
Rani - No, I think you should rather use the key to open the lock.
Raja - Thanks, thats really a good idea.
Rani - No, I think the idea is really good.
Raja - OK, now I have opened the door too.
Rani - Yes, I think the door too has been opened by you.....
It just goes on and on like this.... with the occasional smattering of Govindaaaaaa

In terms of casting, RGV didn't have much choice as many characters are back in their roles after Sarkar. A new one appearing (Somji, Raosaheb's grandson) is a shining example of casting errors. He doesn't look at all like someone hailing from rural Maharashtra. I suspect RGV got carried away in his need to show a Sanjay Gandhi look-alike there because of the character's brash, new generation political identity.

The other new entrant of course is our new bahu on the block, Ms. Aishwarya Rai Bacchan. Her best role so far, surely. Not because she has acted well, but because how beautifully the role matches her persona. You don't need to be a Stanislavsky to know that one has to get under the skin of the character that you are playing. In this case, Ash has had to take no efforts to do the same, simply because how she IS. Throughout the movie she goes around asking completely inane questions. The best one is when she asks Shankar "bomb kisne lagaya"? Aishwarya is well known for the perpetual I-dont-understand-this-so-someone-tell-me-how-the-world-works look on her face. So this movie makes her do what she does well anyway!

Mr. RGV, here are some ideas for making Sarkar Raj better. In any case, you have already left the scope for making Sarkar Part III at the end. (Sarkar thunders, "Pushpa, mujhe Cheekoo chahiye." Camera pans to Ash...."Ek chai lana". What dialogues!) So if you actually decide to torture us any further with yet another sequel, then maybe you could get some inspiration from these ideas.

  1. Just when Shankar and Anita are about to declare their love for each other (when barely some time has passed after his pregnant wife has been blown to smithereens by a bomb, dont forget that!) Pooja appears on the screen. Pooja who? Katrina of course, who dumped Shankar in Part-I and went off to USA. So she appears (out of the lake in the background, so that also gives some scope for special effects) and says to a benumbed Shankar, "main tumhari moorat dil mein liye ab tak tumhara intezaar kar rahi hoon". Then to solve this new love triangle, a dance competition happens between Katrina and Ash. Long live Nasir Hussain and Hum Kisise Kam Nahi !!
  2. At the beginning of Sarkar Part III, Cheekoo's car enters the palatial bungalow and guess how many people step out? You said Two? Wrong . Three ! Cheekoo, Amruta and lo and behold, its Vishnu ! He says to Sarkar, "Shankar ne aapse jhooth bola. Usne mujhe marne ki bajay yahaan se nikal jaane ko kaha tha. Uske dil mein bade bhai ke liye bahut pyaar tha." Just to ensure that Sarkar doesn't miss Shankar much, Vishnu has also grown a beard. This twist would also fulfill the priest's wish mentioned in Sarkar Raj about bringing Vishnu back in some way.
  3. All settle down to live happily ever after, but wait. The story only begins now. Ash orders for a cappuccino (decaf, and no sugar please) for herself and for Sarkar too. Now, that's a clear departure from 'Ek chai laana'. She tells the doyen, "Shankar hamesha chai peeta tha, uski yaadein mujhe bahut sataati hain, isliye main hamesha coffee order karti hoon." Just when Sarkar begins to get dewy-eyed, Amruta appears with tea and proclaims, "baba ki sehat ke liye coffee nahi, chai hi theek hai." Now do you see the immense scope for an epic struggle in the plot? Its not just Coffee vs Tea. It's West vs East. Foreign vs Swades. Adopted daughter vs Bahu. Capitalism vs Socialism. New vs Old........

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

A silent walk through history

I was in Oman a few months back for an Outdoor Training Program with High Places. In spite of having done some research (Wikipedia, what else) about the country, I still expected it to be all a sandy desert. So much for being an aware tourist! I had no time to settle and before I knew, I was out of immigration, into a Land rover and was speeding off towards our destination, Jebel al Akhdar. Having got accustomed to Indian roads and the art of driving on the same, I looked wide eyed at the 8-lane road like a child would in a toy shop. With temperatures soaring above 40 C, the windows shut and the silent engine, it was difficult to believe that we were constantly cruising at 100 kmph or more. (That we were going at 'more' could be realized only when the speed control radar started beeping, unless your eyes were fixed on the speedometer.) Soon we reached Barkat-al-Mouz, where the road departs from the main highway and starts climbing steeply towards Jebel Akhdar. Only 4WD vehicles are allowed to go past the check post here. Why this should be so becomes clear within a km. when the gradient rises sharply from the plains to the jagged wind swept mountains. Jebel Akhdar means 'Green Mountain'. I must confess that at first sight, I couldn't spot even a dot of green colour for miles around. Spectacular mountains the kind of which I had seen before, but certainly not green by any stretch of imagination. Jebel Akhdar witnessed a battle (1957-59) between the forces of the Imam and Sultan (who was backed by the British Army and Royal Air Force) and its signs can be seen everywhere. There was a sprawling flat plateau right opposite our hotel. If you take even a casual 5 minute walk there, you are sure to find spent bullet shells, fragments of machine gun belts, flares and so on. Not far away from there we saw the mangled remains of some large war machine. These ostensibly belong to a helicopter that was shot down, although I found the story rather doubtful.
During one of our short excursions, we visited the ancient little village of Wadi bin Habib. In spite of lot of efforts, I couldn't find out exactly how old this settlement is. The village nestles on the slopes of a narrow valley. One look at this valley tells you why Jebel Akhdar is called so. These valleys (wadis in the local dialect) invariably have a stream and are quite densely wooded. Green mountains, finally !
As we walked down the path into the valley, we crossed plantations of pomegranate (in full bloom). This area has an ancient irrigation system called 'falaj', which is a lesson in groundwater harvesting. As I walked down the wooded path, a chill went up my spine when I looked up at the approaching village. It was all so silent.... The inhabitants of Wadi bin Habib have left and settled elsewhere long ago. The pomegranate and fig plantations are still attended to, of course.

Stepping gingerly into a lane in the village, I peeped into a dilapidated home. I almost expected an Omani version of Rip van Winkle to step out from around the corner. I would have loved to sit down and talk to him about the days when Wadi bin Habib was alive with human activity. What exactly happened to this place? I ventured cautiously into a dark corridor (my friend had warned me that the floor was a little shaky!) and found a probable answer. An empty ammunition box hiding many an untold tale lay silently in the dark corridor. As I peeped into a door opening out of corridor, I could see countless footprints on the mud floor. How many of these were ancient? How many belonged to modern tourists like me? I walked aimlessly up and down the haunting by lanes of this village. I was reminded of Kharsoli, a tiny hamlet high up in Garhwal Himalay. The residents of this village migrate to lower reaches every winter. The feeling of 'someone is following me constantly' was unmistakable when walking through the empty lanes of Kharsoli, way back in 1990. Many later years, the feeling came to grip me again. The urge to look back over the shoulder was overwhelming. What human drama unfolded in Wadi bin Habib? What happened to all the people who were part of that drama? Before I could be consumed by the delusions of being Sherlock Holmes, my friend called out to me. It was already time to leave.

If you are going to walk around this area, keep a lookout for fossils. Actually you don't need to really look out because they are ALL OVER THE PLACE. literally. The rock formations here are eye-catching, to say the least. But don't make the mistake of taking the rock surfaces lightly. A simple slip will leave you quite badly bruised, thanks to the extremely sharp edges. This close up photograph should be enough to prove my point.

Happy Exploring !!!