Sunday, November 17, 2013

Goliyon Ki Raasleela Ram-Leela

Even before writing this review, I knew it would run the risk of appearing slightly schizophrenic, thanks to my difficulty in separating my critical eye from my personal excitement to watch Ram Leela* and shameless willingness to lap up Bhansali's particularly extravagant brand of filmmaking. Consider that my confession, as well as your warning, before proceeding to read the rest.

Because I'm feeling lazy, and because most of us probably made it through eighth grade English class, I'm going to assume that we're all familiar with Romeo and Juliet and avoid explaining the predictable beats of Ram Leela's plot. The opening credits do mention that the film is "inspired" by the classic, but Ram Leela takes it a step further. Aside from the addition of ethnic touches and (of course) song and dance sequences that are rather reminiscent of Bhansali's earlier Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, the film is largely a faithful reproduction of the Shakespearean play--or actually, Baz Luhrmann's 1997 cinematic version of it, right down to the pool under Leela's bedroom, Deepika's white ensemble during the balcony scene, and a spin-off of the famous "rose by any other name" line. 

As a speedy refresher, then, let's just leave it at this: ruling crime clans of adjacent villages, the Rajadis and Saneras have been at war for over 500 years. Daily existence is governed solely by a mission to destroy each other. Even within the enclaves of their neighborhoods, any conflict, major or trivial, is solved conveniently with firearms. Amidst this violence-ridden existence occurs the encounter between Rajadi playboy Ram and effervescent daughter of the Sanera house, Leela. The star-crossed lover angle thus begins, and, well, you know the rest.  

When originality of plot is given somewhat of a pass, a film had better find other ways to keep us interested. What Ram Leela lacks in narrative novelty, it makes up for in dramatic visual scale. Legions of dancers swirl alongside the stars during intricately choreographed songs. Scenes spill over with exquisitely designed ghagras and ornate displays of rangoli. It's a little bizarre to see magnificent havelis and camel-drawn carriages sharing screen space with laptops and mobile phones (there's even a mention of Twitter!), but hey, it is a modern classic after all. If nothing else, the juxtaposition sure contributes to the film's entertainment factor. 

Furthermore, in the first act, it is a welcome change to see Bhansali trade in some of his usual somberness and intensity for a dash of playful irreverence and plain goofiness; we are treated to the delightfully silly "Ishqyaun Dhishqyaun" number, and some laugh-out-loud moments courtesy of Leela's awkward NRI suitor and Ram's particularly cheeky exchange with the police during a raid in his home. 

But post-interval, the film unfortunately slides back into the director's signature realm of melodrama, with long drawn-out sequences that involve way too much killing, backstabbing, chasing, and angry noise. In one scene, exasperated by the trigger-happy tendencies of the two warring families, Ram complains, "su fighting fighting full time?" Incidentally, that's exactly what I want to ask Bhansali, as by the 150th minute and the nine-gazillionth gunshot, we have long since gotten the point. At over 2.5 hours long, even epic gorgeousness can become overwhelming, and by the rolling of the final credit, no amount of ravishing set design or impassioned monologues could have prevented my relief that it was over.

Speaking of wanting things to end, must I discuss Priyanka Chopra's item song? I realize it was a much-anticipated part of the movie, but as I was kind of hoping to keep the snark in this review to a minimum, perhaps it's best that I leave her special appearance untouched.  I will say that, immediately after it was done, someone in my theater yelled out, "once more!"** I would respectfully have to disagree. One round of gratuitous gyrating is quite enough for me, thankyouverymuch.

What I couldn't get enough of was Ram and Leela's courting period. Their first meeting is a solid ten minutes of suggestive gestures, eyebrow raising, and coy sidelong glances during a song sequence. When they do eventually converse, the provocative banter that accompanies the lascivious looks results in an unbelievably electric rapport. It is pure fun watching the two sneaking trysts on Leela's balcony, stealing moments undercover in their respective neighborhoods, and exchanging intentionally cheesy pick-up lines over the phone. Say what you will about the believability of Ram and Leela's story; the chemistry between Ranveer and Deepika, boosted by some seriously spicy dialogue, is off the scale and unlike any other on-screen pair we've seen recently. 

So it's unfortunate when, in the second half, their interactions get relegated to the backseat and the Rajadi/Sanera feud takes front and center. While not unexpected, given the plot's loyalty to its 16th century roots, you crave the duo's presence simply because they make such an irresistible combination. That being said, the supporting cast is by no means incompetent, especially the women; Richa Chadda as Leela's sister-in-law strikes the perfect balance between fierce and vulnerable. Supriya Pathak is a deliciously devious matriarch, her steely glare and ruthlessness commanding power both over the Saneras and over us as an audience. 

However, the movie truly belongs to the leading pair.  While I found Cocktail--often touted as her breakthrough performance--overrated, Deepika has at last convinced me that she isn't just a pretty face with a gift for garba (although, MAN, is she ever gifted at garba.) Delivering flirtatious quips and fiery outbursts with equal finesse, she breathes new life as Leela into the well-worn skeleton of Juliet. As for Ranveer, it is clear in everything from his exceptionally chiseled physique to his hot-blooded passion for his co-star that he was made to play Ram. Though occasionally pushing his confidence to the brink of overacting, there is no denying his completely uninhibited commitment to a character that has no room for subtlety. Despite the shift in focus away from the two in the second half, we can spend it reveling in the resounding impact they make, both individually as well as together, during the first. 

A concluding note, to those who grumble about the film's unnatural excess: let's be real. Sanjay Leela Bhansali has made enough films by now that you when you sign up to watch one of them, it's downright foolish to expect cinema verite. If it's gritty realism you're looking for, go watch a Dibakar Banerjee movie. Bhansali doesn't call his films "magnum opuses" for nothing. He makes no effort to hide his love of color, of grandeur, of theatrics, and of love itself--here, he has unapologetically dished it all out in spades. Ram Leela is a quintessential exercise in indulgence: not to be delved into every day, but relished, free of judgement, when we do.

*In the interest of saving space, can we just call it that instead of its ridiculous, way-too-long new title? Thanks.

**In spite of not sharing the young man's sentiments, for the first time ever, I was thrilled about this. Not even prim & proper Singapore can hold obnoxious desis back from hooting in the cinemas. Woot!

Friday, November 15, 2013

Enough Said

I was less than amused by the contrived and crude humor in It's Complicated; yawned my way through the tired storyline of Something's Gotta Give; and fidgeted uncomfortably while witnessing an over-the-hill couple struggle with intimacy issues in Hope Springs. Needless to say then, the thought of watching yet another middle-age romance made me weary.* And yet somehow, The Husband and I found ourselves at the cinema last Tuesday evening, purchasing tickets for Enough Said, a movie that, from the trailers, promised the very premise that for me, had gotten old. Pun intended. 

I should have known better. When you place the mammoth talents of Julia Louise-Dreyfus and James Gandolfini in the hands of a writer/director as sharply perceptive as Nicole Holofcener (doesn't hurt that her entry into Hollywood was under the tutelage of the ever-discerning Woody Allen), the results are bound to stand out from the rest.

10 years divorced, with a loving daughter (Tracey Fairaway) whose one foot is out the door on her way to university, Eva (Dreyfus), a masseuse in her mid-50s, is painfully aware of having to redefine the impending new phase of her life before the loneliness of empty-nest syndrome sets in. 

So when she meets Albert (Gandolfini) at a party and begins dating him soon afterwards, she is delighted at having found someone she genuinely clicks with. Albert is overweight, balding, and a bit of a slob--but he's also effortlessly lovable, unashamedly vulnerable, and a fellow divorcee on the verge of sending his own daughter off to college. Connecting to him with unexpected ease on everything from a distaste of loud restaurants to the visual symptoms of aging and the challenges of single parenthood, Eva is surprised at how comfortable they are together, and how quickly her feelings for him grow.

Meanwhile, she also finds both a new client and friend in Marianne (Catherine Keener). A poet who dazzles her with an impeccable home, yogini-esque aura, and first name basis with Joni Mitchell, Marianne also happens to be Albert's former wife--a coincidence unbeknownst to anyone except Eva. Still bitter about her failed marriage, and thrilled to finally have a confidante, Marianne doesn't hold back in divulging the idiosyncrasies she found maddening about her ex-husband; suddenly, Eva finds herself having become the sounding board for endless complaints about own new boyfriend.

When you've already lived half your life and had your share of heartbreak and missteps along the way, it's only natural to approach every new major decision or turn of events with a degree of trepidation, afraid of mistakes you think you can no longer afford to make.

Perhaps this is why Eva never confesses to either party, using Marianne's consistent stream of criticisms of Albert to discover his imperfections and, in subsequent conversations with her best friend (Toni Collette, as a psychologist who may benefit from some therapy herself), judge the course of her own relationship with him. Soon, all the quirks that initially made Albert sweetly endearing to Eva--his guacamole-eating technique, his slightly unkempt home, his limited culinary repertoire--become reasons to question him as a partner after being clouded by Marianne's tainted lens. But in her preoccupation with how Albert's faults could lead their relationship to disaster, Eva may actually be the one digging them into a hole.

There is a moment in Enough Said where, acknowledging her use of humor to mask her deeper insecurity, Eva admits, "I'm tired of being funny." The line summarizes, albeit inadvertently, one of the biggest traps that previous films about love over 50 fall into; presumably desperate to appeal to all ages, they subject their older actors to plot points better suited for 25 year olds, and drive them to histrionics that border on buffoonery. 

Ironically, in spite of Eva's confession, Enough Said manages to achieve funny without forcing it or resorting to caricatures and melodrama. The twist that forms the central plot may be unlikely; however, the reasons it occurs, the sentiments that surround it, and the humor that arises from it are entirely plausible, thanks in large part to a screenplay that reflects Holofcener's subtle yet solid understanding of human nature. Dreyfus, Gandolfini, and their supporting cast shine in their portrayals of carefully-etched characters that are notable for being flawed but not unsympathetic, and likable without trying too hard. No hysterical breakdowns a la Diane Keaton necessary to create comic relief; no need for the 60 year old male lead to be a stereotypical womanizer to convince younger viewers of his desirability. The combination of a minimally embellished script, Dreyfus's sheepish smile, Gandolfini's good-natured self-deprecation, and their natural chemistry work together to elicit from us a frequent chuckle, and occasionally move us to the hint of a tear.

During their first date, we watch Eva and Albert discuss their methods of home organization and debate the merits of The Container Store. In another scene, Eva snuggles into her daughter's bed and, in a typical moment of parental curiosity, asks her what she ate the previous day. Even the unfolding of the climax is refreshingly undramatic, mercifully free from eyeroll-inducing displays of excessive emotion. At moments like this, we realize the deceptive difficulty of using the nuanced, more real moments of personal interactions to tell a compelling story while still managing to preserve the zingers and zest of a successful comedy. It is a reminder to appreciate filmmakers like Holofcener for crafting simultaneously witty and authentic characters, recognize the rarity of actors who can do them justice, and lament all the more the loss of an artist as versatile and valuable as Gandolfini.  

With simple, unembellished dialogue, equally authentic delivery, and deeply compassionate treatment, Enough Said is honest, heartfelt, and wise; an astute portrait of two adults navigating the unique challenges and rewards of mid-life relationships.

*come to think of it, why have I seen so many movies about middle-age romance anyway? #SlightlyWorried