Friday, July 25, 2008

Chasing Mirages. Again.

I belong to a generation of students (defeated and victorious) who have been through the IIT-JEE grind. Despite two years of punishing coaching schedules, my peers’ fascination for competitive exams and “premier” institutions hasn’t dimnished.

Déjà vu is unmistakable – engineering aspirants who, three-four years ago had devoutly attended JEE coaching are now filling up benches in CAT classes. It's easy to see parallels between IIT and IIM, charismatic brand names that are venerated in India. Ignoring the inherent contrasts in the nature of CAT and JEE, their resemblance is strong in other respects - intense competition for limited seats, loads of feverish applicants struggling through endless mock tests and three hour classes, anchored by visions of hefty paychecks and jobs abroad, and the escalating success of the coaching monsters spawned by these exams.

There is nothing wrong in the pursuit of a successful engineering/ management career or in aspiring to enter elite schools. What is troubling is the unthinking way in which we make the leap, heedless of aptitudes and needs. We owe it to ourselves to draw our own maps rather than go astray, following signposts.

Enough has been said about the evils of our education system, the distressing effects of coaching on learning attitudes, parental pressure and the lack of awareness and imagination that characterizes most career decisions. It’s not awareness that we lack, but courage to see our selves, our dreams, and our abilities in a truthful way and do the right thing. Soon, the quick-fix dogma of “Choose science stream, get an engineering degree and then an IIM MBA” will be elevated to commandment status. We end up chasing the same mirage on every road.

Monday, July 7, 2008

What's wrong with Dasavatharam?

Distributors would say, "nothing at all". Opening with 29 shows a day in Mayajaal and Sathyam, 10 a day in INOX, subsequent shows of the movie managed to attract second-timers, third-timers, with voices turned hoarse with second-guessing inspired punch lines and fingers numbed with applause (Gult-bashing and Bush-bashing are united by the unanimously enthusiastic response they provoke. Even weak jokes are heartily humored with bursts of laughter.)

An unpretentious commercial movie that never made any brave promises of providing an uplifting intellectually stimulating movie experience doesn’t deserve criticism. Especially if you, like myself, do not require uplifting intellectually stimulating experiences to make your trip to the theatre worthwhile. It cannot be crucified for falling (significantly ) short of genius when it only set out to be a formulaic mass movie saturated with sure shot attention-grabbers - Mallika Sherawat, a sensational opening sequence that can chill the blood of any fanatic Iyer/Iyengar, a gargantuan star cast with a crowd of uselessly recognizable faces littering every frame, yawn-inspiring action sequences, “excellent” (I wouldn’t know the difference) camera work, and passably peppy (and from what I hear, popular) tunes elements that are sure to get the average Tamilian to gloat over 120 well-spent bucks. It cannot be hailed as one of the best things that have happened to Tamil Cinema, nor is it a Kamal Hassan Masterpiece.

My enforced ignorance of the aesthetics and structure of Cinema and theatre isn't going to make my first attempt at a movie review any easier. Dasavatharam is only the third movie I've seen in 2008 (after some forgettable RAF movie (the only surviving fragment in my memory is a conversation about Chinese gang wars that followed) and then Sex and the City). That should give you an idea of my cheerful indifference towards visual arts in general and cinema in particular. My infrequent excursions to movie theatres (I haven't watched a single movie on my computer) have been dictated mostly by the force-fed inclinations of my companions, with my non-existent taste in movies reluctant to raise even perfunctory protests.

What I liked about Dasavatharam was that the makers stuck to their vision of the movie throughout the three and a half hours- An unembarrassed Pot-boiler. It never betrayed its genre for even a second, though offering a self-apologetically atypical (of commercial Tamil cinema. ) script, it resorted to tried-and-tested gimmicks to ensure that the treatment of the script is conventional . Of course, the heroine has to be insipid, irritating, and absolutely helpless. Of course, the audience should stifle cries of “What else?” And “not now” when the guy and the girl discuss wedding plans immediately in the wake of a chase (that would have drained superhuman reserves of stamina and wearied the most romantic “maid-in-distress-gallant knight” inclinations) in the backdrop of death and disaster. Healing properties of Misfired bullets, opportunely switched luggage, serendipitous tsunamis, and extremely predictable co-incidences (fancy a Japanese martial arts master screaming “Tsunami” on some TN beach and rushing to guide the guy and the girl out of trouble with the adroit boat-handling ease of a Jap fisherman who’s outlived five tsunamis), miracles pulled out of thin air and deep seas and lazy scripting minds in search of shortcuts, super-conscientious, super-brave super-lucky hero, a super-bad killing machine for a villain, and the audience-favorite game of “spot-Kamal-there’s Kamal”- come on, if this isn’t classic commercial cinema, what is? I found out to my amusement, that Most of the pre-release buzz about the movie being off-beat (with some hyperbolic reports going as far as to use the term science-fiction to describe this attempt where science is just another bit-role, a neglected extra) was unfounded. His "multiple avatars" sparked reactions from the audience that can be compared to the recognizant sighs of an indulgent parent cooing over an overexcited child's capers in a Fancy dress contest.

An unwillingness to resolve the issues (I hate it when people ask questions during the out course of a movie/book only to leave them in the question mark intact at the end. Why talk about Science vs. God, faith vs. reason, mining vs. Mother Earth as a mere gesture of lip-service to the supposed theme? ) that the theme (s) of the movie raises can be traced to indifference. A callously knitted meandering patch-work script that glories in being hackneyed (like XXXL sweaters that sacrifice snugness to live up to a mistaken measure of the right size) for the sake of accommodating as many avatars as possible. Hastiness in developing a screenplay that strives to be clever, only to appear contrived. Fighting dreadful fears of straining the scant capacity of a mass audience to comprehend science while exploiting their infinite capacity to appreciate infusions of morality, entendre and appeals to religious sensibilities.

Other Voices might praise research (?), production values, attention to detail, screenplay, and cinematography, whatever; there again I wish to desist from ignorant misuse of cinema jargon hence my voice will not join this chorus. Rare instances (that evaporate as quickly as your impressions of Kamal’s fleeting attempts at acting) of original humor, delicious timing and the occasional lines of sensible dialogue can redeem the creative conscience of the movie. Your disgust for the movie will only intensify at the sight of the Director’s victory-dance and the accompanying self-glorifying hero- song(a la Rajini, except that they got the order wrong. It’s at the end rather than the beginning), the pointlessness of which will only serve to remind you of the more maddening pointlessness of other scenes in the movie.

In the end the makers of the movie will get away with their not-guilty plea.If you accuse them of breaking promises (that were never made), creating unrealistic expectations (that obviously weren’t have been fulfilled) , it’s time you reviewed your subscription to whichever magazine carried that reverent review/impressive report/ glowing preview. Commercial cover-page-exclusive-scoop-sneak-peek journalism and commercial cinema make a very potent cocktail indeed.