Sunday, February 24, 2013

Kai Po Che: Game to on hai boss!

Part of our emergency is that it’s so tempting to do this sort of thing now, to retreat to narrow arrogance, pre-formed positions, rigid filters, the ‘moral clarity’ of the immature. The alternative is dealing with massive, high-entropy amounts of info and ambiguity and conflict and flux; it’s continually discovering new areas of personal ignorance and delusion. In sum, to really try to be informed and literate today is to feel stupid nearly all the time and to need help.

- David Foster Wallace, Introduction to Best American Essays 2007

(This is less a review than a freeform blog post of my thoughts. Just a warning.)

Loyal - and infrequent - readers know that I cut very little slack for the middlebrow. Filmi Girl doesn’t hand out brownie points for not having sync songs or for leaving out a comedy track. Nor is Filmi Girl impressed with navel-gazing films about the Importance of Young Men Finding Themselves, which usually translates to I Found A Hot Girl To Love Me and/or I’m So Great that I Need to EXPRESS MYSELF!!11!!1! AND NOBODY UNDERSTANDS ME! So, there was every chance in the world that I would walk out of Kai Po Che rolling my eyes as hard as I did after Udaan. But, thankfully, Kai Po Che gracefully avoids all the pitfalls of the Importance of Young Men Finding Themselves while being about... three young men growing up.

Walking, blinking, back into the daylight after watching Kai Po Che there were two new phrases, hastily scrawled in the dark, in the tiny notebook I carry with me. The ‘moral clarity’ of the immature and the Tom Cruise look. Taken together, the two phrases capture everything I loved about Kai Po Che - the attention to detail which reveals itself in something so small as making sure Sushant Singh Rajput as Ishaan would have the floppy-fringed style befitting the town stud circa 2001 and the commitment to a narrative depth and subtlety which allows Ishaan to be both an immature dick and morally pure in his actions.

In the fine tradition of male friendship films like Dil Chahta Hai* (2001) and Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (2011), Kai Po Che is the story of three best friends - cricket enthusiast Issh (Sushant Singh Rajput, in a fine debut), intellectual schoolteacher Govi (Raj Yadav), and the priest’s son Omi (Amit Sadh). The film follows the ups and downs of their relationship, as they attempt to open a sporting goods store in Ahmedabad, Gujarat in the early part of the 2000s.

Director Abhishek Kapoor puts the relationship between Issh, Omi, and Govi at the heart of the film. Plot, story, and narrative take a backseat to the unpacking of the dynamic between these three men. Issh is the charismatic, charming, big-mouthed leader of the pack - except that it is Govi who actually decides what should be done and how. Omi is the sweet-natured follower, infatuated with Issh (feel free to read it as romantic or platonic, the film leaves it ambiguous) but unable to express what it is that he wants. Issh has the spark, Govi the drive, and Omi is the willing audience.

But there are two spanners thrown in the gears of this well-oiled relationship. The first in the form of young cricket prodigy Ali (an incredible performance from the young Digvijay Deshmukh) and the second in the form of Omi’s uncle Bittoo (playwright Manav Kaul). In young Ali, Issh sees the potential to realize his own frustrated dreams of playing cricket on the national level and the chance to act out the role of the nurturing parent he wishes he could have had. But the attention he pays to Ali is attention taken away from Omi, who is jealous without quite being able to articulate why... unfortunately, because it ends up as misplaced hatred of Ali’s community, further flamed by Bittoo-uncle, who has Omi under his thumb.

Anybody watching this film should be familiar with the terrible events that happened in Gujarat during the early part of the 2000s and with Ali being Muslim and Omi being the son of a temple priest, the climax of the film is obvious from the beginning. Because of that, I think Abhishek Kapoor makes the smart decision to frame the entire film as a flashback, dropping ominous hints of the future events here and there. Since we already know what is to come, Ishaan jokingly waving around a gun takes on a loaded, Chekovian meaning.**

But a film that is built so strongly on characterization could not succeed without strong performances and Kai Po Che has them in spades. Perhaps it should be expected from the director who (stunningly) got Arjun Rampal to actually act in Rock On but the performances in Kai Po Che are uniformly excellent.

Sushant Singh Rajput’s charisma overflows, making it easy to understand why his friends would put up with his moods and temper tantrums.

As Govi, Raj Kumar Yadav is the most grown-up of the three. Rational and cool-headed, when Raj’s face lights up, with excitement, he is adorable. It’s no wonder Vidya falls for him.

The character of Omi was perhaps the toughest of the three to bring to life but Amit Sadh does a superb job. Omi doesn’t shine, like Issh, but he’s attracted to the light. Echoing whoever holds the brightest lamp, whether it’s Issh or his politician uncle. Amit’s eyes are very expressive and he used them to infuse his dialogues with secondary meanings. Omi may say, “What about our community? but he means, “What about ME?”

Little Ali had maybe four or five lines but this kid has incredible screen presence, saying more with the little hunch of his shoulders and a well-timed glare than other actors have in entire films.

Manav Kaul was a delight. He looked like he should be on a 40 foot tall cutout at a political rally. Even the perfectly trimmed moustache felt threatening somehow.

I’m not quite sure of his name but I also enjoyed the man playing Bitto-Mamu’s right-hand-man. Like any good lackey, he lurked in the background, T.C.B.

Since this review has devolved into shapelessness, I’ll just go ahead and close it out with one final thought. Kai Po Che is that rare beast, a movie meant to be seen in the movie theater. It is a Film with a capital F. The leisurely pace is designed for a darkened theater where the audience has no ability to flip channels or browse the web. And the lush visuals take up the entire screen. Acres of twinkling lights at the garba; a sword 20 feet long; a dustry cricket pitch that runs for miles... I’m not sure if a DVD watch can ever capture the feeling of freedom you feel at the movie theater, letting your mind sink into a story, the telling of which is completely out of your control.

No, I lied. Here are two more final thoughts. Speaking of out of my control, I - and a few others I talked to about this - were startled when an interval break did not come at the expected time. Or at all. The idea of the first half/second half is so built into Indian filmmaking that it was jarring to not have an interval, especially since Kai Po Che is divided into a first half/second half and even throws in a small item of sorts in the traditional place in the second half. And my actual, real final thought is this - I wish the subtitles had been better. The English readings were so trite and I know the Hindi was a lot more lyrical. When I mentioned this after the screening to the friend I went with, we both had picked up on the same line. Omi and his uncle are talking and the English says something like “We lost the battle but can win the war” where the Hindi says something more like, “We lost the election but we still have our courage.” There are two very different shades of meaning in those phrases.

So, do I recommend Kai Po Che? Absolutely! Go and see it, in the theater if you can!

* Given a nice shout-out during the picturization for Meethi Boliyan

**Along with middlebrow taste, one of the other things I cut no slack for is condescending reviews of Indian films by white people. Which is why one of the few reviews I read before seeing the film was this one from Toronto’s Globe and Mail which (condescedingly) says this:

Increasingly Bollywood (which sells more tickets and makes more movies than Hollywood but produces much smaller revenues) is actually shopping for Western attention with cross-over films designed to entertain audiences not fully steeped in the Indian conventions of overproduced, melodramatic musical romance.

The reviewer, one Kate Taylor, assumes that because there are no sync-songs, this is a film aimed at Western eyeballs but could somebody with absoultely no knowledge of the tensions running through Gujarat during that time let alone the basics of party politics really understand what is happening here? Clearly something is going to go badly., she writes. Considering the time and place - NO DUH!

Although, to be fair, a little knowledge can also be dangerous. As it gives Rachel Saltz yet another hook to make her sweeping pronouncements about The State Of India As Seen From An AMC Theater In Manhattan.

1 comment:

dk said...

But i thought it was the most Indian film I have seen in the longest time!

Note from Filmi Girl:

I love Bollywood - and all the ridiculous things that happen in Bollywood - but it doesn't mean that I can't occasionally make fun of various celebrities and films.

If you don't like my sense of humor, please just move on by - Trolls are not appreciated and nasty comments will be deleted.

xoxo Filmi Girl
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