22 February, 2011

Undhiyu aur 7 Khoon Maaf, a review

What’s the “special” today? I asked the waiter as we settled ourselves for dinner in the Thali restaurant of the mall in the neighborhood. By the special I would mean that one course which would be the piece de resistance in the entire Thali. “Surti Undhiyu” was the answer and I was thrilled. I love this Gujarati preparation that is made in the winter months. It’s a mix of all the seasonally available vegetables. It’s further embellished with “methi” dumplings and remains rather heavy on the oil and masala, but an absolute delight on the palate. I settled in for the meal with my better half across the table. She being more partial to sweets was enquiring about them.

This restaurant “Rajdhani” is rather famous for its Thali and unless one is really really hungry it is pointless venturing into this den. One is literally attacked with hospitality. The humungous variety of food that sits in one plate is enough to have nutritionists requiring not calculators but Cray computers to get the exact calorie count. The food is good and we come here once in six months to face this and decide after the experience never to subject our stomachs to this level of pressure. But human memory and time has a unique correlation. It selectively allows some such decisions to gradually diminish and fade away till a repeat experience is required to endorse it again. Within seconds the large steel plate, which in an earlier century could have been comfortably used as a shield by some warrior, was populated with sundry knick knacks, snacks, salads, vegetables, assorted dals, kadhi, sweets, and the Undhiyu. Fresh phulkas, kept coming in and I tore off a piece from my first phulka , generously wrapped it around a helping from the Undhiyu and put it in my mouth. As the buds in my tongue sent the signals of the taste, the analysis was clear, something was not quite correct.

I looked down into the plate, it looked like Undhiyu alright. Then with my finger, I started sifting through the ingredients and saw most of them here. I called the waiter over. Has the chef / bawarchi changed ? The waiter was aghast and asked me what happened and I told him that the undhiyu does not taste the same, what is the issue? He rushed inside and out came the bawarchi wringing his hands. Apologetically he bent down and told me, Sir, you are quite right. It is the Undhiyu. The reason why it does not taste the exact same is because instead of sweet potatoes , it has only potatoes and in place of green garlic he had to use the other variety. His honest admission had me smile and assured him it doesn’t taste bad only a mite different. It was not a complaint. He continued in his lament, what to do sir, sometimes one fails to get all the ingredients of ones choice and no one realizes that out of 92 ingredients required for the Undhiyu even if we use substitutes for any one or two of them the taste would change and be noticed by a connoisseur.

He had put the finger on the spot. This was the exact issue with the movie that we had seen just before we entered the restaurant for the meal.

7 Khoon Maaf
Vishal Bharadwaj is one film maker who has, amongst the latest talented crop of directors, consistently delighted me. His onscreen adaptations of Shakespearean works like Macbeth ( Maqbool, in my opinion his finest movie till date ) or Othello ( Omkara ) or his award winning Makdee ( one of the best full length films for children in recent times ) he has impressed with his attention to the script. His association with good authors for stories led him to Ruskin Bond whose story “Blue Umbrella” was adapted by him with his favorite actor Pankaj Kapoor in the lead. This was the second story of Bonds that Bharadwaj was associating himself with and there was a lot of buzz around the movie.

Priyanka Chopra who had been a scene stealer in his earlier Kaminey was in a full length role with him, so there was obviously an expectation of a working chemistry. This story of Bond’s titled “Susannah’s Seven Husbands” is an incredible piece of literature spanning a mere four pages and was keen to see how it would be adapted as a full length feature film. Ruskin Bond himself had been engaged to work with Bhardwaj and Matthew Robbins in a supportive role for the script. Then the list of actors who graced the parts of her husbands is the who’s who of acting talent in this country and abroad. Naseeruddin Shah, Irfan Khan, Annu Kapoor, Neil Nitin Mukesh, John Abraham, Alexander Dyachenko and Shah’s younger son Vivaan making his debut.

The movie is good without a doubt but like the Undhiyu we were eating, had hit a different spot and it was extremely difficult to put a finger on what exactly was it while  watching the movie.The cinematography of the film is excellent, Ranjan Palit creates an eerie atmosphere with his camera and the play of shadows around the characters is chilling. Unfortunately it is the actors, some of them, who fail to deliver on the beautiful canvas created by Bhardwaj & Palit. Priayanca looks the part and plays it adequately but there are times when one wonders what would have happened if she had just let go of her restraint, cinematically it would have connected the dots for me the viewer. She doesn’t rise above her part and this was the sweet potato missing from the Undhyu called “7 Khoon Maaf”.

The green garlic elements were in the scripting and here I lay the blame squarely at the Chef’s door. His earlier work Kaminey or even Ishqiya too had a lot left to viewer interpretation but that approach doesn’t quite work here. The last is the choice of a title and this in my opinion is where he truly lost out on the plot. The title succeeds in doing only one thing for the viewer in that numerically he now is in the know of how many more rounds/episodes are remaining. The lead actor is unable to convey motive, compulsion, mania or simply put even the need to go on and on, and this is  the place where the dots from one episode to another do not get suitably connected.

The music is brilliant and some of the side acts are good too like the dwarf jockey. Neil Nitin Mukesh delivers a chilling Major and Anu Kapoor as the cop with a nuisance value excel in their parts. Naseerudin Shah as the opportunistic doctor is good and his son makes a reasonable debut and shows promise.

One of those days when a Chef from Rajdhani doesn't get his Undhiyu exactly right is what happened with Vishal Bhardwaj & “7 Khoon Maaf”. All the ingredients being individually quite correct and perfect but as a composite dish, something went slightly awry. 

Whats the final verdict though, is the movie watchable ??? Definitely Yes, a truly great chef or a director even on his off day will create a dish or a movie that will still be a cut above the best, of his ordinary contemporaries...So do go & watch this different piece of cinema

06 February, 2011

Interfering Character

Sunandadevi :

The nostrils were being pinched and a mist swirled around her eyes. A water bottle solicitously held against the mouth prevented it from opening any further. The water blocked the other oral passages that may have let in air and she started to choke. Around her was a huge gathering of close family; her sons, daughters, their children and a guest but not one of them looked her way. They were all here for Divali and busy chatting amongst themselves. It was an annual ritual that had existed in the Raje Pawar family of which she Sunandadevi was the matriarch.  Severe arthritis and a paralytic stroke had robbed her of both coherent speech and active movement thereby confining her to a wheelchair.

She was dying… no...She was being killed. Her life, in sepia toned frames, did not pass before her eyes as they showed in the movies. All through the haze her eyes were locked on the unfeeling gaze. Then she understood. For just a moment her eyes pleaded to them for a small helping of that precious thing called life. It shamed her; a royal scion to beg. The gaze upon her was pitiless as she started losing consciousness. The celebrations around her went on. The last thing she saw in the distance beyond the gaze was the near bald pate of their houseguest; reclining on the easy chair in the verandah taking a bite of a karanji. She willed him to turn but he too did not. The hazy light silently gave way to pitch darkness.
Satyesu Babu :

Satyesu Tathagat Basu’s eyes closed with immense pleasure as the sweet grated coconut based stuffing spilled onto his tongue. It was the Karanji , a Divali sweet that he was enjoying at his client - friend Nikhil Raje Pawar’s residence. Satyesu babu as he was called had free time on his hand. The wife had taken the kids and gone to her family residence at Jaduguda, in the Singhbhum district of Bihar.

Satyesu babu’s status had been slightly elevated amongst the other staff being a guest of the prince though he too was technically the hired help.  Years of good breeding had instilled in each member an easygoing charm that at once welcomed him, accorded him a place in their midst but kept him at a distance as well. Satyesu Babu felt these subtle lines very easily but they didn’t bother him as they let him just be. His personality had a trait that unless one really looked for him specifically one wouldhardly notice him. As an accountant and auditor he observed everything very carefully and deliberately to understand how the pieces fit before compiling a report. Auditors will remain auditors.

He had spent the time sitting on the terrace outside the main hall sipping a chai served catching up on a  Sardindu Bandopadhyaya novel. Satyesu Babu’s gods were the fictional detectives Feluda and Byomkesh Bakshi. He aimed to think like them and solve mysteries but his accounting fiefdom constrained him to nothing beyond financial chicanery……..

Writing about Satyesu Babu’s chai made me want one for myself and somewhere the flow was tapering off too. A break would be good thought I and lifted my head bent over the keyboard and got the start of my life. I was looking into the face of a smiling woman…sitting in the wicker office chair opposite me. Where had she come from and who was she? She seemed in her mid twenties, was dressed in a rust colored salwar top & a sky blue dupatta both patterned with crystals, extremely sophisticated & stylish. I knew no one like her yet she seemed uncannily familiar.

Not recognized me have you? You writers are all the same. You create a character and then fail to identify them. Yes, I am Sunanda. I chose to appear younger, because though you made me a matriarch and murdered me in the first paragraph, I too was young once. Now that my role in your story is finished what was I going to do in there? Why should I remain old and wear those silly heavy duty Sari’s, I never liked them anyways. So now tell me what were you planning to do with me or rather my body? At the most you would have an inquest conducted and then cremated me, right? My footage on the stage of your story is done then why don’t I come and check how are you getting along with it. And you can close your mouth please, open jawed wonder went out with Doris Day in the sixties, close it… you may let in a fly. I promptly shut my mouth and stared as I listened to her accent that was faintly anglicized and she did speak fluent English. Oh..Oh!!!  I uttered and immediately came the retort…So is that the extent of your spoken vocabulary. Why don’t you make that chai for yourself as you planned to and come back here for the story, and yes, you can call me Suni…Rajmata Smt Sunanda Devi Malhar Rao Raje Pawar can be quite a mouthful.

I went to the kitchen platform and brewed some tea for myself and raised an eyebrow to her whether she would join me and she shook her head. The aroma of the tea and its first sip removed the cobwebs from my mind as I started sensing my surroundings. Normally when one is into a plot one tends to lose focus of things around one; I was that kind. But no, she was still here walking around the room having a look at my book collection and nodding. As I approached my writing desk she looked at me and laughed out. You truly don’t know where you are going with the story do you? I ruefully smiled and told her that I sketch out the characters and then they interact and the story forms. “Bosh” she said waving her hand in the air dismissing my rather earnest counter.

What were you attempting here, a murder mystery? I nodded. And your detective is that bald karanji eating auditor?
What’s wrong with him, he has already solved one mystery for me.
“Bosh” again that sound, I was quite getting to like the sound though not the lady. Just because he reads Feluda and Byomkesh Bakshi you expect him to solve my murder, and that too in 2000 words. Even Conan Doyle or Dame Christie have not managed it what makes you think you can and that too with that bumbling karanji eater.
I smiled my superior smile telling her I had given it serious thought if only she let me finish.
No no dear you need serious help here. I was aghast as I considered my situation. Was I going nuts? Here is a character of my story jumping out and demanding the story be written in the manner she wanted.
Almost reading my thoughts she said, you don’t know who killed me, I do. You want me to tell you right now? There are many potent flaws here. Like what?  I asked taking a sip that in my agitation proved so generous that I started coughing. She started laughing merrily and did make a very pretty picture in my living room, shaking her head said ‘Now I know why you had me bumped off that way?” You always choke over your tea.
I was getting irritated at the manner in which my methodology was being so easily dissected and in a surly tone reminded her ‘the flaws, if you please.”
Yes, she stopped laughing and wiping her eyes said” You have made me a matriarch and that necessitates at least 3 generations and then a royal matriarch so servants, visitors and guests, all in that one room. The guest as you told me is the detective so I have to be bumped off by my family. You won’t have enough meat in the story for building up the characters and knowing my family the way they are, every one of them would love to kill me.  This brings us to the motive? No my dear man you sure are in trouble here.

I was going to write ahead till you came out Suni, why couldn’t you stay in? Actually You know said she , I am quite fond of you and thought to myself, here he is struggling, not knowing how to move ahead, so now he would go on and on about food and waste too many words.
I sputtered over my chai once more in indignation. What ever do you mean?
Come on…don’t you push in a recipe when you get stuck or insert a filmy situation just to give it more momentum.
Now what’s wrong with that, I love food and films both. In my fervor I was shaking my head and met my own gaze in the mirror and considered the ludicrousness of this scene. I am arguing with my creation. What do you know about filmy situations I badgered her? Whatever do you know about them?
Darling , said she in dulcet tones…putting one leg over the sofa chair striking a surprisingly chic pose ala Marlene Dietrich, what do I know of films? You forget I am royalty, you have made me so, and I went to a Swiss finishing school and guess who were my classmates/ Shobhana’s daughters, Nutan and Tanuja.
Now this was getting too much and I reminded her that Shobhana Samarth , Nutan and Tanuja are legitimate film stars while you are just a character out of my so far unfinished story.
Again she mischievously smiled and said that’s why I love you, its your imagination and thought of dissuading you from this fool hardy venture. Write this story definitely…not as a short story but as a novel. Then it has potential.
Unlike real life in a story you can’t have the murder go unsolved can you? The tapestry is too rich for it to be accommodated in fewer than 2000 words for it to go as an article. You editor may not like to carry it as a series. Then you won’t get paid and you won’t have your Darjeeling chai to choke over to give you inspiration to attempt a murder mystery, again the musical laugh followed.

Enough, do you have to go on and on about it? I quite liked the idea of a novel though or even a novella and she was smiling appreciatively back at me. That shall come later but is definitely on the anvil. So what shall I do about you now? She was fading from sight as I said this and barely heard her final words that she threw at me with her saucy smile, Remember me by dear, though not just as an interfering character.