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Human beings, in general, have a tendency to romanticise the past. To think of the days gone by as almost perfect. That includes not only the past experiences of places and people but also objects. Why else would we look back with such wonder at a four-poster bed or a vintage car?

Reality, however, mostly disappoints. We go back to the garden or house that we grew up in and suddenly it looks too small or shabby. We wish to recreate the innocence and magic of the past but are served with cold facts. Two things usually happen. Either, we realise that time and age have made the objects of our youthful remembrances fall apart. Like a beautiful village that once had vast green fields and tall, dancing trees but, is a charmless wannabe metropolis now. Or secondly, we understand that it was actually our imagination that had imparted that special something to the memory. Like a favourite book that had once seemed like the epitome of romance, but now seems just sappy and unoriginal.

This is why, I was wary of revisiting a story that had made a deep impression upon me, when I was quite young. A television serial called Farmaan (meaning Edict). I would recall, with misty-eyed pleasure, a few snatches of the dialogues or scenes but something would stop me from making an attempt to find the serial. Or, actually watch it. I was evidently fretful of being disappointed, of perhaps tarnishing a lovely memory.

I would remember a Byronic hero, a beautiful heroine, even the good-natured sidekick. Fragments of chaste Urdu would slowly float into my consciousness. Mostly though, I would remember the kiss. That spine-tingling, passionate, forbidden, purloined touch of the lips. At the time, I was too young and naive to know what that kiss truly implied. Yet, I could sense the trepidation of that stolen, forceful moment.

Now years later, I have managed to watch Farmaan again. Maybe, being cannonaded with images of languishing lovers on Valentine’s Day, sort of put me in the mood for a swooning romance. And, I am so glad I watched it. Farmaan tells such a thoroughly engaging tale. From the moment the lovely Aiman Shahab alights from the train and makes her solitary way to the royal abode of the Hyderabadi nawabs to the scene where love is finally expressed and embraced, it is a joy ride.

The serial is only fourteen episodes long and I cannot help but wish that it was a little longer. So completely immersed was I in the world of sweet Aiman and the intriguing Aazar Nawab. I was moved by the sad history of the gracious Bade Sarkar and the forlorn Waqaar Chand… amused and charmed by the happy-go-lucky Bashaarat Nawab. Even that damsel in distress, Rehana, or the sleazy and opportunistic Mukhtar Ali had qualities that made them real. But, no matter how much I would have liked to extend my emotional involvement with the story, I applaud the makers for having kept the proceedings so succinctly appealing, for having remained true to their vision, for respecting the spirit of Rafia Manzurul Amin‘s novel, Alampannah, that inspired the plot of Farmaan. Impossible to imagine such a thing in the present TRP-dominated telly world.

The other thing that gladdens my heart is the simplicity. The setting is suitably grand but does not look ridiculously opulent, in any way. Everything is real, the tall havelis, the exquisite interiors, the lakes, the forests. This is not a fake, glossy set. Thankfully. This adherence to historical, cultural and geographical accuracy enhances the cinematic quality of the production. And, the actors too look wonderfully genuine. Aiman‘s allure is potent enough without layers of makeup or weirdly showy jewellery. Her clothes showcase her taste and nature. Aazar Nawab is dashing and always well turned out. But the elegance is understated. As befitting one who is truly upper-crust. The author, Rafia Amin, was present during the making of the serial and she was the one who designed the outfits. This fact, I am sure, contributed to the authenticity of the outcome.

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Aazar Nawab has certain qualities of the quintessential Romance hero. He is wealthy and noble, passionate and enigmatic. He is moody and dark but suitably smitten. He is possessive too. Aiman too fits into the mould of the Romance heroine. She has the pluck to challenge Aazar Nawab‘s censures and barbs. But, she also has the hopeful naiveté of a young woman who cannot remain impervious to the flattering gaze of a handsome lord. There is a constant sense of a powerful attraction simmering between the two leads. Aazar sometimes teases Aiman Shahab by calling her ‘khawab’ (dream) and though she protests, she is more stung by his slights than disturbed by his scrutiny. The various romantic tropes in the plot could have turned the serial into a rather cloying mess. But, Lekh Tandon, the director, never allows the subject matter to lose its footing. The atmosphere is always plausible, the treatment is authentic. Honest.

Aiman and Aazar never really cross lines. There is verbal sparring and a few tantalising moments that border on intimacy but the suspense and decorum are always maintained. The restrained dialogues and visuals also keep Farmaan from becoming soap-operatic. At times, Aazar Nawab is likened to a predator. After one of their initial encounters, Aiman, who is perturbed by the nawab’s imposing persona, leafs through a magazine and stops to stare at a picture of a snow-leopard. Another time, while watching tigers at the Dandeli sanctuary, Aiman speaks of man-eaters other than the feral variety. This metaphor could have been misused. But, the point is only hinted at, never driven home relentlessly. This moderation of style and language is maintained throughout and it makes Farmaan so agreeable to watch. And, also to hear. The muted strains of neat Urdu is like music that is soft and perfectly pleasing.

The cast too, is perfect. Kanwaljit Singh makes a superb Aazar Nawab. Apart from being a talented actor, he has the height and persona to impart a certain haughty grandeur to his character. The pipe is maybe a wee bit overdone but it also shows his reserve. The smoke surrounding him is his defence against disclosure. Lest his feelings are exposed and he is made vulnerable. His dark past makes him resent any sort of weakness and hence, he is vexed by his own passion for Aiman. He rages over her friendship with Bashaarat and ends up taunting and tormenting her. But, the moment he knows for certain that there is no other man in Aiman‘s life, he becomes still. There is a subtle shift in the tone, thereon. Aazar‘s actions take on a more purposeful quality. It is as if he knows where exactly he is going.

Aazar Nawab continues to be unpredictable and sharp-tongued but his smiles are easier now. His gaze has more of a quiet strength. A scene that I rather like, shows Aazar standing near a lake and smoking in solitude. And then, he espies Aiman, who is at the spot too, throwing stones despondently into the water. Creating ripples in the stillness. Aazar allows himself to be drawn in by her and when he offers her comfort and, kisses her tenderly, it seems to me that he is completely ready for a change. Ready to accept comfort and love, finally.

Deepika Deshpande is not a flashy beauty. And that is a good thing. It does not take away from the inner qualities that allow Aiman to not only capture Aazar Nawab‘s heart but also win over everyone who meets her. Her honesty, openness, and caring nature attract as much as her golden-eyed comeliness. Raja Bundela, who plays the amiable Bashaarat, is a pleasure to watch. He lights up the screen and infects us with his joy. Bundela‘s high-spirited and carefree Bashaarat is the foil to Kanwaljit‘s brooding and high-minded Aazar.

The other actors too make a mark, despite the limited screen time, and present us with memorable characters. The munshi who speaks the colloquial Hyderabadi tongue and is so fond of old songs. The fiercely devoted maid who follows Bade Sarkar like a mother hen. The funny chef and Bashaarat‘s favourite scapegoat, Abdul Karim. Bade Sarkar, whose benevolence and thoughtfulness is reflected by her son, Aazar, and who is played ably by Vineeta Malik. And, Navin Nischol as the sad and self-sacrificing noble, Waquaar Chand, is quietly effective.

Farmaan may be a bit too unflamboyant and subtle for some. It might even be too straightforward or uncomplicated for the post-modern sensibility perhaps. But for me, it is a fine story for a dreamy, moonlit night. Farmaan possesses a fairytale quality; a lovely girl transforming a ‘beast’ with her love; a handsome lord trying to hide his hurts and his noble spirit behind contemptuous frowns and sarcastic words. And in the end, love and goodness prevailing over all. The story is not without layers. There are nuances of expressions and conversations that benefit from repeat viewings. And, even without such readings, Farmaan still captivates. It is a testimony to the fact that old is indeed gold, that secret treasures can emerge from the past. That there is a reason why oftentimes, we look back to seek joy, innocence, romance and a little magic. That memories can sustain and inspire. Farmaan is an ardent proclamation of love that speaks directly to the heart.

 

Copyright © 2016 [Violet Dolui]. All Rights Reserved.

 

 

 

 

 

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1900

It is a rare film that can capture my attention from the first shot, and hold on to it with such unflagging determination, till the very last. The Legend of 1900 is one such film. It just takes me in, lures me into its whimsical world… with some help from Ennio Morricone’s beautiful music, Lajos Koltai’s breathtaking cinematography, solid performances, and of course, the protagonist’s deep, soulful eyes.

I would not generally call Tim Roth beautiful but he is so beautiful in this film. He plays Danny Goodman T.D. Lemon 1900… the young handsome pianist… who was born and brought up on a ship and never sets foot on land. 1900 spends his days gazing at the changing colours of the ocean, observing the countless passengers who travel across the Atlantic, and playing his piano. He discovers his love for music very early in life and his gift is such that he can make the instrument come alive under his lightest touch and respond to him, like a lover in the throes of passion.

The scene, where Max, the narrator of the story, first meets 1900, is something straight out of a dream. It is a stormy night and the ship is being cast topsy turvy in the ocean. Max struggles desperately to not be sick and keep himself from yet another fall when he is accosted by a young man, who looks serene and absolutely untouched by the chaos around. Max staggers after this courtly, graceful apparition into the majestic dance hall, where he is invited to ‘forget his misery’ and share a ride, atop the grand piano. 1900 starts playing as the piano moves and slides like a dancer across the floor and soon Max is laughing with sheer joy. Everything in the ship is in turmoil but 1900 does not have a hair out of place. He is at home. No oceanic storm can dispel the calm from his face or the quiet laughter from his eyes.

Roth does have the finest pair of eyes, doesn’t he? How eloquent! How deep! One look into those enigmatic depths and we know that 1900 is not quite of this world. He is dreamy, and guileless, brooding and firm, generous and impish, kind, self-absorbed, and above all mysterious… just like the sea.

At one point in the film, 1900 expresses surprise when he is told that the ocean is the most beautiful thing in the world, and that the sea has a voice. He tells Max that perhaps he needs to get ashore to understand this subtle beauty. That perhaps he needs to stay on land for sometime in order to be able to hear the call of the sea. But, even though he tries, he fails to leave the ship. Because, he is the sea, isn’t he? Or, at least, an extension of it. How can he survive going away? How can he be objective about the sea? How can he hear its voice when it is so deeply anchored within him? The music that he creates is music born of the sea.

There is a touch of guilelessness about 1900, on account of the unique circumstances surrounding his birth and upbringing. But, he is also uncannily perceptive. His mind takes him to places he has never actually seen, to understand those whom he has never actually met. The part, where he speaks of New Orleans during spring… when he describes the descending fog as a sharp white blade that decapitates everything from neck upwards and makes headless passersby bump into each other, is surreal. Max wonders how a man who has only a limited existence can know of such things, such rich details.

Likewise, 1900 has the ability to compose tunes that seem to spring from a magical well. Music that reaches out to all, be he rich or poor, plain or sophisticated, self-contained or worldly. He observes and understands the people on board the Virginia. He can plumb their secret deeps and look into their core, unbiased and all-seeing. 1900 plays the music that those people inspire. And then curiously, the music becomes those people. Not a crowd of faceless strangers but individuals with their own special brand of humanity. A man who bears the burden of memories he cannot forget. A prostitute who dances and sways but who would be a nun. A murderess with her silent lover. A young man who is eager to pursue fortune and fame and the promise of America.

Pruitt Taylor Vance plays Max Tooney, the trumpeter, with such honesty and emotion that we experience his devotion to 1900, we feel his pride and wonder and sadness. He is the common man who gets a glimpse of greatness and wishes that his gifted friend would receive all the fame and accolades that he so richly deserves. Time and again, he encourages 1900 to cross the gangplank and step into the real world and embrace success, fortune, and also, the happiness of a normal life, a life that is perhaps less than immense. He draws a pretty picture of 1900 in a domestic setting. Enjoying the banalities of an ordinary life,  in the comfort of a fine house, and in the company of his wife and friends.

It is obvious that Max has good intentions for his friend but we cannot ignore the hint of sadness or wistfulness in his voice when he speaks of 1900 engaging in the averageness of everyday life. Perhaps, Max cannot bear the thought of his friend being anything but extraordinary. Or more probably, he knows in his heart that 1900 will never be normal, even if it signifies only obscurity and loneliness. At the end, Max is forced to accept this fact in the most heartbreaking way. The Virginia is decommissioned and set to be demolished with dynamite. And yet, 1900 chooses to remain on the ship, thereby signing his own death warrant.

1900 does give an explanation of sorts to Max, if only to help him reconcile to the inevitability of his grim decision. He tells Max why he cannot choose the city. Because, the immenseness of the city frightens him. The city that never ends. Too many roads, too many choices. He tells Max that he cannot make music on a piano that has countless keys. He needs his piano with the eighty eight keys, no more no less, to create infinite music.

Is 1900 truly afraid to embark on a trail that is too wayward, too full of uncertainties? Is he a coward? Is that his tragic flaw? He could have embraced the possibilities; could have attained much. For he is a pianist without compare. A musical genius. Who can forget that sizzling duel between 1900 and the swaggering Jelly Roll Martin, the man who created jazz? 1900 is, at first, mesmerised by Martin. He allows himself to take a backseat and just enjoy the music that the jazz-king conjures up. But eventually, 1900 realises that divine music is not enough for Martin, who needs to publicly humiliate and annihilate his rival. And, that is the moment when everything just turns on its head. 1900  drops his easy slouch, bends over the piano with a powerful certitude and plays up a storm… his fingers moving with the speed of a tornado. The keys crackle with the energy and mad intensity of the performance. And lo! The cigarette sizzles and lights up! The audience is left astounded, bereft of speech. As if struck by lightning. What an absolutely spectacular scene!

When the utterly defeated Jelly Roll Martin gets off the ship, 1900 remarks, in his usual offhand manner, “Fuck jazz too.” That moment actually sums up the whole idea of 1900 for me. I do not think that it is cowardice that leads our solitary hero to turn his back to the world. Land comes to represent not only beauty or promise for him, but also pure avarice. The greed of man that keeps asking for more and more till all beauty is stripped and only ugliness is laid bare. It is this greed that 1900 rejects, with such finality. This refusal to be content. Not love. Not normality.

Love is the only thing that actually tempts 1900 to abandon his ship. For a little while, at least. Melanie Thierry plays the girl, whose angel face captivates 1900 and he ends up composing the most perfect music, while looking at her. There is such wonder and longing and innocence in his gaze. The scene where they stand apart in the pouring rain, she staring at the grey foggy sea and he just looking searchingly at her with the record clutched in his fingers, is beyond lovely. And the other scene, where he walks through the women’s dormitory at night just to get a glimpse of her and steal a soft, sweet kiss, is so bewitchingly beautiful. Lovely and sad. Because, even though there is love in his eyes, there is resignation too.

It is not arrogance or selfishness that leads 1900 to break his deal with the music producers. It is not the reason why he breaks the only record of his exquisite composition, to pieces. No. It must be remembered that he created that particular piece of music for the girl and he wants to gift it to her as a token of his regard. It is his to give and hers to keep. Only hers. He prefers destroying the music than letting strangers possess what is so precious to him. The young lover is unable to give the record to his beloved, unable to confess his feelings or claim her. She belongs to the world and he is not able follow her there.

The Legend of 1900 is filled with much beauty and poignancy. Many moments that make us think and muse. That defy strict interpretations and inspire deep sentiments. We keep looking back, mulling a word or a scene, over and over again, just to grasp its elusive significance. 1900 declares that he always goes back and his story is compelling enough to keep taking us back in. A magical experience indeed. Thanks to Giuseppe Tornatore, that masterful filmmaker. And, Alessandro Baricco for the beautiful Novecento monologue, on which the film is based.

Before I end this meditative piece, I must mention Tim Roth again. His performance is undoubtedly excellent. Roth makes us believe in the genius of 1900… in the fire and innocence and purity of his soul. In the way the pianist loves and celebrates music, even when he has no piano to play. Roth lights up the screen with his charisma. And, did I mention that Roth has the most beautiful eyes? Well, he does.

Copyright © 2015 [Violet Dolui]. All Rights Reserved.

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It is seldom that one comes across a book that is thought provoking and thrilling in equal measure. Death in Holy Orders by P. D. James is one such book. James is widely considered to be the greatest living mystery writer and in this book, she lives up to that honor and more. She has told an intricate story in the most lucid yet compelling manner. Her characters are vividly etched and appear as genuine as actual people. And, there is something for both a serious booklover and a suspense aficionado in this novel.

The story is absorbing in its own right. The isolated and rugged shoreline of East Anglia and St. Anselm’s, the theological college located there, far from the mundane world, provide an evocative backdrop for the murder mystery. The characters such as the priests, the ordinands, and the employees are all multidimensional and therefore, not easily fathomable. Each one is capable of suggesting innocence or candor and yet they all become suspects in a brutal case of murder.

The detection crew is headed by the poet detective, Commander Adam Dagliesh. He is experienced, intelligent, authoritative, and self- possessed. He is also, deeply thoughtful and poetically imaginative. His character is not that of a cut and dried detective but of a hero, in the truest sense of the word. Hence, the hint of romance surrounding him in the novel is convincing, even pleasing.

The leisurely, deliberate pace and extended descriptions and meanderings could have been tedious but they give layers of significance to the narrative. James gets the readers involved in this sensational story about ambition, revenge, love, incest, failure, and murder. She makes them uncomfortable by posing questions about belief, sin, and the consequences of action.

The ending might seem somewhat anticlimactic but Death in Holy Orders closes on a balanced and almost hushed note that is satisfying. Justice prevails, the old and rigid ways are set aside, innocence is salvaged, and love is promised.

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                                                      Firelight-sophie-marceau-sophie-marceau-13255976-500-328

“It’s a kind of magic. Firelight makes time stand still. When you put out the lamps and sit in the firelight’s glow there aren’t any rules any more. You can do what you want, say what you want, be what you want, and when the lamps are lit again, time starts again, and everything you said or did is forgotten. More than forgotten, it never happened.”

Beautiful lines from a breathtakingly beautiful film.

I do not know how I can describe it faithfully. Because to me, Firelight is more than just another piece of cinema. It is an experience so absolutely stunning, that it cannot be captured in words alone. It is like a dream half-remembered, a thought barely grasped, a secret vision of strange, sheer, and unfathomable beauty.

I could tell the story. I could speak of the fine performances. I could rave about the lovely Sophie Marceau and the intriguing Stephen Dillane. I could describe the wonderful cinematography and the perfect costumes. But all that would not suffice. They just would not touch the magical essence of this film.

I have heard reviewers brandishing the word ‘chemistry’ often, while describing the relationship between male and female protagonists. But only after I watched the characters of Elisabeth and Godwin together, did I realize what that particular word can actually mean.

The chemistry in Firelight is like a complex dance of will and passion and hopeless longing. The eyes speak words that should not be spoken. The expressions reveal nuances that make breathing a tad difficult. And the exquisite whispering subtlety of the relationship makes the atmosphere smolder with unnerving and arousing intensity.

The relationship between Elisabeth and Godwin begins with cold necessity. But, they are soon overcome by feelings that shake their composure and engender a terrible longing in their hearts. Elisabeth stands at the beach and claims that the sky, the sea, and the nothingness make her want to shout. When Godwin urges her to do so, she laughs and admits that it is not easy. Later, she expresses the wish to shout again when she shares a particularly intimate moment with Godwin. But again she is unable to. She is forced to bury her overpowering need for him in her inmost soul.

And though Godwin may seem self-contained or cold, his eyes give him away. There is much hunger there and loneliness. He cannot face Elisabeth without the aid of a strong drink or a stern facade.But he is more staggered than harsh, more agitated than cruel, more supplicating than demanding.

Stephen Dillane, accomplished actor that he is, makes every shuddering breath, every suppressed sigh, every startled or hopeless or bright glance mean a thousand words. And, the supreme poise of Sophie Marceau has to be seen to be believed. As Elisabeth, she might be a prisoner of her circumstance but she behaves like a queen in exile. She also seems to see things with extraordinary clarity and reaches the core of a matter with a surprising directness and determination.

The scene where Elisabeth secretly watches Godwin as he stands naked, drying off after a swim is particularly memorable. It conveys not just a sense of her heightened physical consciousness of the man but also her deep knowledge of his principled, vulnerable, and involved nature. The foggy glass between them stands for the societal and personal barriers that they cannot perhaps surmount.

The firelight, in the film, is a symbol of the break in time. When a moment freezes and one can pass through the fabric of reality into a world of dreams and fantasy. When nothing is impossible and the deepest desires can emerge from the subconscious and take tangible shapes.

Godwin, during his first meeting with Elisabeth, says, ” Fire gives more light than one expects…” He repeats the same line, later, when Elisabeth is working as a governess in the manor. For Godwin, turning towards Elisabeth had meant a momentary unburdening from the burden of his responsibilities. It had meant the pursuit of his own happiness, for a little while. What he had not anticipated was that his inner needs would begin to dominate so much of his consciousness and that it would become so hard for him to give up his love and don the mantle of duty again. In the cold cavernous halls of the English manor, Godwin is forced, time and again, to draw close to the fire to seek warmth. Very telling, indeed.

Elisabeth’s relationship with the difficult and lonely child underscores her difficult relationship with the father. Louisa’s attempts to read the picture-cards, slowly progress from pretension to understanding. Similarly, the love of Elisabeth and Godwin moves from longing and denial to acknowledgment and fulfillment. The firelight of secret dreams destroys all restraints and becomes the reality.

However, the underlying somberness of the story is never truly dispelled. Even in attainment, there is loss. Godwin has to lose his old life in order to follow his heart. And Elisabeth knows that the single-mindedness and the overwhelming strength of her desire have made things happen. And maybe, there is an element of selfishness in her longing. At the end, there remains a shadow… a humble recognition of what has  made their happiness possible. But that only intensifies the union of Elisabeth and Godwin. Their love is both defiant and reserved, triumphant and hushed.

This story could have turned vulgar and melodramatic so easily. But the presentation is so fine and measured, the performances are so controlled and sincere, and the atmosphere is so emotion-laden, yet subtle, that this film comes as close to perfection as possible.

Firelight, in a word, is enchanting.

Copyright © 2011 [Violet Dolui]. All Rights Reserved.

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