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Tomorrow full of promise

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Despite the faltering, Ruchi Narain sends the right signals with her Kal she's a director to watch out for.

Director of `Kal, Yesterday and Tomorrow' - Ruchi Narain
Director of `Kal, Yesterday and Tomorrow' - Ruchi Narain

Shubhra Gupta

How important is it for a filmmaker to announce where his creation is coming from? Or, to rephrase the question, how does a movie declare its origins, without getting denounced as a `me-too' or a `copy' or, in euphemistic Bollywood terms, `inspired by'?

Playback singer Anu Malik has gone famously on record with this classic one-liner: only God is original. Given Malik's propensity for `inspiration', even this line is probably a lift. But in this globalised, synchronised `day and date' release age, leading to pirated DVD nights, it becomes nearly impossible to hide the fact that you've stolen the idea, or the concept, or sometimes, shamelessly, whole sequences. Somebody, somewhere, will have seen it before.

Take, for example, Vivek Agnihotri's wonderfully stylised Chocolate, a film so out of the Bollywood grid, that people who don't know better would be forgiven if they thought the movie was a great, wacky idea. It tells the story of a multi-layered con game, in a mix of flashbacks, where the perspective keeps shifting, and we are kept guessing till the end.

On a New Delhi visit to promote the film, Agnihotri used a clutch of superlatives, slightly different from the words most directors use, even if the hyperbole was all in place. Chocolate would take us to a different orbit; it had an international structure, content, and format. It was challenging, and path breaking. All of which sounded very good, coming from a man who sported a nifty little ponytail, had gone to Harvard for a management degree, and did some interesting TV fiction in the past decade.

What he forgot to add was that his film was lifted from The Usual Suspects, the Bryan Singer movie, which did shake a few narrative norms in Hollywood in the mid-1990s. Now if Agnihotri had made a terrific copy, we would have forgiven him the sleight of hand. But his plot has too many threads, which do not connect (even in a complicated thriller, where you are required to use your head, it is important for the script to have clarity), and characters that happily tramp around on their own tracks, without meshing. And two women, who can only be called actors, if you want to be extremely charitable.

The trouble with passing off something as your own creation, especially if it falls flat, is that you can't even blame the original! It isn't as if The Usual Suspects was scintillating all the way through, but it kept you with it. First-time director Agnihotri, in trying to be too clever, keeps losing us.

The moral of the story, in this time of flux, is that it's not just enough to do different. You have to be good, too.

The same thing can be applied to another debut, which released last week. Dil Jo Bhi Kahey, a youthful love story, has been attributed by the filmmakers to its TV origins, C'est La Vie. Old Bollywood hand Romesh Sharma introduced his son in a romance, which is styled in modern overtones, but has a script that reeks of staleness. The same old parental conflict, the same old sacrifices. The story is creaky, the performances average, and the hero, devastatingly ordinary.

Even the presence of Amitabh Bachchan, who does his standard paternal act, with the mandatory Holi song thrown in (poor Bachchan, he must be so sick of those Holi songs, having done them from Sholay, to Silsilay, to Baghban, to this one), does nothing to save the movie.

But another film, which released the same day as Chocolate, by the promising Ruchi Narain, gives us a story that has something new, even if not all of it works. Ruchi's Kal, Yesterday and Tomorrow is a `very now' take on Gen X, and their doings. Three gal pals and their love lives get tangled in a tragic death, star-crossed lovers, and high-flying deceit.

Ruchi's film has the essential ingredients of good movie-making: a story which makes you want to know what happens in the end, some characters who have interesting quirks, and a couple of smashing performances. Where it falters is in not keeping everything of a piece. The playing out of relationships in an ultra-rich, urban milieu is beautifully realised (one girl's boyfriend marries her best friend, and the group splinters right down the middle), but goes out of focus when the plot veers towards its less savoury aspects.

The 29-year-old Ruchi has assisted Sudhir Mishra on his earlier projects like Iss Raat Ki Subah Nahin, Calcutta Mail, and this year's wonderful Hazaaron Khwahishein Aisi. She is the one who discovered the stunning Chitrangda Singh, the leading lady in the latter, as well as her own Kal...

What her film proves, even in the limited release it's got, is that there is an audience for it. Coming-of-age yarns came of age with Dil Chahta Hai Bollywood's first film which made `hanging' (not hanging out, please note... that phrase puts you definitively in the past decade) respectable, now has space for other kinds of stories which feature loathsomely rich kids, unscrupulous business houses (what other kinds are there?), and English-speaking men and women who use the bed for recreation rather than purely for reproduction.

It is a pity that all its nice parts don't add up to a whole, but then it's a first film, where you are allowed to make your mistakes, and indulge your little passions. Ruchi has put up signs that she is a director to watch out for. After all, there is always the next film.

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated September 30, 2005)
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