Monday, April 25, 2011

The Torture-Chamber files: Maapilai

I know. I'm probably the last person in this forum and most certainly the least qualified fool amidst a roaring crowd of eight hundred plus inside a packed cinema hall to even comment on a movie such as this, let alone review it. My eight year old niece sitting next to me (upon whose insistence I ventured to come along) is so much more enthusiastic, let alone being accustomed to the so-called Indian "masala" genre of movies than me, and it frightens me to think that someone as young as she actually enjoys watching movies that have such lethal force and relentless assault on the senses, both moral and virtual.. that it feels like trying to hold a lighted candle in your hands while attempting to stand beneath a fully opened dam, leaving you senseless, reviled, angry, disillusioned, helpless, yet… deeply hurt. I never even needed to get myself inside a movie-hall to know that this was going to be a fish-out-of-water experience for me. Though Tamil movies aren't new to me, the mere look at the poster itself gave me the shudders. But this.. This one went a step further. I was a fish out of water on a hook-string, mishandled, scaled, skewered, fin-clipped and nearly dunked into a frying pan, before I hit water again. All this while my dear niece whooped and squealed all eyes and ears to a systemic deluge of insanity that ensued during the next three hours.
Still, while I watched Maapilai, I realized that this is perhaps the most important movie I've watched, long since movie-watching for me, stopped being a mere source of entertainment and turned into a form of therapy. Like applying polish to the insides of a wax-tin, most movies in Tamil Nadu have established some sort of a chassis-like framework for which wear & tear does not even seem like a matter of concern. Every time the system looks like it's slowly evolving into modern ways with modern directors like Venkat Prabhu, Mani Ratnam, Baala and Mysskin to ride the momentum of popular support, there come movies such as this one, to wipe away the few advancements we've seen in it's stride, and take us back to the stone-ages. And when we talk about wiping away, I'm thinking about a chalk-coated slate being furiously scraped clean, with the sharp end of a pitchfork. Ever since I started watching art films by the truckload, I also inculcated the habit of forcing myself to watch from time to time, a notorious, purposefully vile and horrid film, not simply for the torture-value and unintended laughs, but mostly for the pain. Pain numbs the senses and when your emotional quotient feels like it has touched such a low so as to hit a reset button within yourself, even slightly happier things in life feel far sweeter than you could've conceived. That was the reason and agenda behind me agreeing to watch Maapilai. This was its noble purpose.
Hero, heroine, villain ("villi", in this case) and yes, a comedian. That's pretty much everything that the masala template needs, say to start from scratch. To cut a crappy story into a rubber dinghy, a relatively poor, seemingly well brought-up fellow marries a daughter of an insanely rich, super-aristocratic empress, automatically falls into the Mom-in-law's bad books, and proceeds to teach her lessons on altruism. For this purpose, he has a convenient flashback: He's a rowdy in disguise. So it's gonna be a clichéd tit-for-tat battle between the 'high-class' and 'low-class'. Mind you, the producers want you to conceive a clash of titans climax. So here's the still-gawky Dhanush trying his best to puff as many cigarettes and bare as many teeth as possible, simply to look macho, with the required "pattai" on his forehead, when the script calls for him to look baby-good.
The heroine's purpose in the movie is still a blur. Her job is to simply appear coy and giggly while our man slithers his rubbery, lizard-like hands around every square inch of her body. Perhaps this was the director's revenge for her not conceding to dance for the film's mandatory item number. What's most obvious is that her act here looks quite desperate, yet sufficiently infused with lethargy, while she's trying to gain a foothold in the industry, mainly with the help of her fair, glossy skin. As far as the Item number is concerned, the alternative was to bring in a lady ODed on rape-pills, make her look like a purposefully provocative, towngirl-cum-pornstar and let the choreographer and composer freak out.
I have no clue as to what kind of potential the director would've looked for when he chose Manisha Koirala for his negative role. If a floating buoy in the middle of an ocean could channel emotion, even that will beat the competition with "Raaja Raajeswari" and her fixed, walk-on-the-clouds look, stoical facial reactions and an emotional quotient ranging anywhere within those of a mosquito.
I have profound respect for Vivek as an accomplished comedian. He is one of the last few talents in the industry who can make even a murderous goon roar with laughter. But for his role in Maapilai, I'm guessing the poor man must have been given a roll of toilet-paper for his script, and simply act-out his outraged reaction to the insult. His antics and attempts at humor are both disturbing and depressing, with an accent so fake, you might think he's trying to portray a vocally handicapped person. But even that possibility is ruled out, when he doubles as a clown pretending to be a rich-rich-RICHer fellow than our villi herself, to aid our hero's sinister plans.
The traditional six-pack dance sequences don't add much to aid the story. So do the enormous fight sequences. But is that deterrent enough to keep our producer from spending more than half his budget on them? Chaansey illa. Doing away with these elements in a masala movie is tantamount to sacrilege. It's an industry, after all..let everyone, even the extras have their portion of the cash-crop. The masala-genre to Indian cinema, is after all the exact opposite of what junk food is, to the vegan diet.
I haven't had the chance to watch the much talked-about predecessor to this movie, which is what has been copied into this film. Apparently the older film was a runaway hit and had garnered a lot of acclaim for the superstar. And since Dhanush is now on a mission to copy-paste whatever his father-in-law has accomplished, he's probably under the impression that his career trajectory is on a preset path. All he has to do is to pick out any one of the superstar's hits, add some "low-class cheri" element to it, and consider himself re-invented. He is either everything his father-in-law hoped for, or every single shred of his worst fears, very neatly compiled.
In spite of the fact that Maapilai fully matched up to my expectations and ended up being a tirade that will forever aid as a negative low-point in my experience with movies in general, it couldn't match-up to what my previous torture-chamber inside a screening of golmaal-3 could provide. Still, the purpose was achieved and I came out of the hall feeling satisfactorily emaciated and unnerved. And to prove my point, I went back to the same hall the very next night, to watch Liam Neeson in Unknown and Mysskin's Yudham Sei back-to-back. Words couldn't describe how pleased I was with both, insomuch that I felt like I was watching something as epic as Inception. As for my lovely niece, roaring with laughter at my shell-shocked face, while walking out of the cinema hall, I'm just happy she isn't being judgmental about me for having let her watch this load of crap.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Elite Troop 2

 In 2008 at the Berlin International Film Festival, a Brazilian movie that depicted the work of Rio de Janeiro’s special police force BOPE won the prestigious golden bear award for best film. The police unit, which often shows up in Human Rights Watch reports and is considered one of the toughest and most professional urban warfare units in the world is the spearhead of the crime-ridden city’s law enforcement policy and has a reputation of being comparatively non-corrupt. Jose Padilha, the director, originally wanted to turn fact accounts from the book of the similar name into a documentary but they changed course and subsequently made one of the most successful Brazilian movies ever.
Tropa de Elite (aka Elite Squad) tells the story of BOPE Cpt. Nascimento (Wagner Moura) who is looking for a promising recruit to succeed him at the force. He has marital problems and panic attacks, it is time for him to step down and give way to fresh blood in the ranks of the elite squad. The next round of boot camp, which to North-Americans might look familiar to the Navy Seal BUDS camp, churns out Neto and Andre. Andre is a smart, idealistic and ambitious guy who wants to save the world. Despite the social inequality in Brazil that makes it hard for an unprivileged, colored man like Andre to succeed, he takes up studying law, and he enters BOPE. Neto meanwhile works himself through the corrupt local police before being fed up, being discovered and joining BOPE. He is a short tempered, impulsive guy, who tends to get himself into trouble. The two quickly form the new BOPE class’ top troopers. Andre falls in love with Maria, a co-student who heads an NGO in one of Rio’s slums (favelas), but she does not know he is a cop. While Rio prepares for the Pope’s visit and steps up the daily raids into the slums to capture (and kill) drug traffickers, Andre’s involvement with Maria gets more and more complicated, as her NGO can only operate with the drug gangs’ blessing. Things get out of hand quickly, with Neto losing his life…… and Nascimento and Andre set out to track the gang down…
In 2007, footage of Tropa de Elite got leaked and pirated, which however made the movie all the more famous. It is a compelling story of the Brazilian boom city’s social tensions, and the horrendous violence perpetrate on both sides of the law. It is a shocking movie, shot with an eye for detail and a convincing cast. The movie keeps its documentary-style feel and the grittiness of a front-line report. The movie will not only satisfy those hungry to see a realistic action movie about special forces, or those wanting to see top of the line Brazilian cinema, a glimps of this great country’s life on the big screen, but also those looking for an on-the-edge-of-your-seat social drama – with a great soundtrack to boot.
Three years later, it is Berlinale time again here in frosty Berlin. I have secured tickets to watch the sequel to Tropa de Elite, which is titled Tropa de Elite 2: O Inimigo Agora é Outro (the English title is: Elite Squad 2 – The Enemy Within). The much anticipated second part had to live up to high expectations and promised to be a lot more controversial – and with a bigger budget. It is not easy to make movies in Brazil I was told, that is why the opening credits are preceded by a whole series of logos, the movie however is already the highest grossing Brazilian movie in Brazil to date. But let me cut to the chase.
Tropa de Elite 2 takes place today, and Nascimento has lost both his wife and custody of his son. War is a drug, he says, so he went back to his old job, commanding a BOPE squad led by Andre, as ranking Lieutentant. When a riot in Rio’s maximum security prison Bangu 1 breaks out, his squad is at the helm and Andre’s men are facing an armed gang bound to slaughter the rest of the (rival) inmates. A law professor and human rights activist the gang leader (played by Brazilian musician Seu Jorge) trusts is called in to defuse the situation, but Andre does what he was told in BOPE boot camp, and all hell breaks lose, with BOPE walking out having massacred the rioters.
The city has a scandal on its hands, with the human rights activist publicly denouncing Nascimento, Andre and BOPE, the blunt weapon of the governor. Nascimento however is at the same time called a hero by the conservative electorate, and the governor promotes him to deputy secretary of public security, while Andre has to bite the bullet and gets demoted. Rio politics, fired up by the conservative media, lets Nascimento lose, and he uses BOPE to clean up slum after slum. But the vacuum left by the drug cartels is quickly filled by corrupt police militias, who won’t be as easily driven back as the drug dealers. The human rights activist seizes the wave of sympathy and runs for the local parliament…. Nascimento is confronted with a dilemma. The net of corruption, and BOPE’s role in the corrupt schemes of the politicians and police chiefs are about to be uncovered with the help of the parliamentarian, an integral crusader almost, and a courageous journalist…. Nascimento is right on the front line – and in the line of fire….
Where Elite Squad was something of an introduction to the world of favelas and BOPE, Tropa de Elite 2 is an advanced study of the country’s complex crime problem. Brazil, which is one of the world’s fastest growing economies and Latin America’s economic and political powerhouse, has a huge inequality problem, which is on heavy display in a metropolis like Rio de Janeiro, where beautiful and expensive beach penthouses can be seen before a panorama of slum dwellings on the surrounding hills. That stark contrast fires social conflict. BOPE is right in the middle. The news reports of Rio police backed by federal military forces invading some of the most famous slums of Rio only this last fall illustrate, how “real” this movie is, despite its fictional nature. The political subtones of this sequel and the quite open criticism of the roots of the problems, make it an especially controversial movie that is sure to have an enormous impact considering its huge success. I was enormously entertained by the film, which offers a number of climaxes and had me sweating in my seat. A movie that is as intense as it gets, without laying it on too thickly. A smart, brutal, beautiful tour de force, a brilliant showcase of Brazilian cinema and an action-packed crime adventure which I hope will win over audiences around the world – the pounding gun fights will stick with you.