Shashi Baliga

Where no director has gone before

Shashi Baliga | Updated on October 24, 2013

Up there: Sandra Bullock in the bravely produced Gravity

Raj Kumar is powerfully understated in Shahid

Last week was a good week at the movies. It’s not often that I get to say that, so when I found myself thanking the cinema gods twice in one weekend, I wondered if it was too good to last. As it turned out, it was, with the hi-decibel Boss breaking the magic spell rudely.

But in that one glorious weekend, I took in two movies that, for me, exemplify the brave new direction that our films and their films, as Satyajit Ray famously called them, are taking.

I’m talking about Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity and Hansal Mehta’s Shahid, two movies born at opposite ends of the world and that inhabit two ends of the film-making spectrum. They present the best of contemporary Hollywood and Bollywood and they couldn’t be more different.

Gravity is the kind of movie that Hollywood does better than anyone else: mega-budget, super-tech, well-written, competently or even brilliantly acted, imaginatively directed and bravely produced. Think Life of Pi, Inception, Avatar, the Pirates of the Caribbean series. These could have emerged only from the Hollywood crucible. They’re the movies designed for the cinema hall experience and to beat the DVD danger. They need big-time guts and money to pull off — and they work at the turnstiles because people are still ready to pay for the big-screen experience.

As with Gravity, which cost $105 million (approximately Rs 630 crore) to produce but raked in $55 million in its first weekend alone and would probably have hit $300 million by the time you read this. Not bad for a movie that has only two actors who spend a lot of their screen time in clunky space suits, no romantic track, no thundering dialogue, no traditional action… heck, no traditional anything.

What it does have is a great story and some of the most stunning representations of Earth and space you’ve ever seen on the screen. Alfonso Cuaron goes where no director has gone before, exploring new frontiers in every which way: He reinvents the grammar of cinematic storytelling even as he uses the simplest and most straightforward of narratives. This was not a movie you could have foreseen from his earlier films — cult classic Y Tu Mama Tambien, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban — but his dystopian sci-fi film Children of Men is said to have provided much of the homework for Gravity.

It’s certainly helped. Cuaron uses 3D technology in a manner that’s jaw-droppingly magnificent and the gasps in the movie hall are audible. I know many movie buffs and some critics believe that 3-D is largely hoopla but if you grant that cinema is a visual medium, anything that enhances the visual experience has got to be good for it.

It’s all about using the technology imaginatively. Would Life of Pi be the same without its special effects, for instance? Gravity, too, would not work as well in a regular screen, but that’s a bit like saying Lord of the Rings would not have the same impact without its stunning cinematography. You’ve got to see this movie in 3D. It’s an experience you won’t forget.

From Gravity to Shahid. From the vastness of space to the narrowness of the human mind. From Hollywood dazzle and wizardry to the quiet, intimate story of a personal tragedy. Hansal Mehta’s Shahid is what purists would call classic film-making, a style that relies on the basics. A gripping story, a clear narrative, terrific performances, the building up of characters and dramatic tension; a climax and ending that do not disappoint, a director who’s very sure of what he wants to say and how he wants to say it. This is as real as it gets in Hindi films; Shahid makes Gangs of Wasseypur look filmi. The locations and set design, the clothes, the body language make you forget you’re watching a movie. The court scenes look so authentic, they’re almost disorienting for those who’ve watched too many Bollywood “Milord” scenes. You can feel the claustrophobia of the low-income family living in their tenement, you can smell the sweat and the fear in prison and the courts, you can taste the chai in Shahid’s tiny office.

Raj Kumar’s organic, powerfully understated performance — certainly his best and surely one of the best we’ve seen this year — elevates Shahid to a level rarely achieved in mainstream Hindi cinema. What an actor he has grown into. Or perhaps it is the case of an actor getting his due. He has been arresting even in smaller roles like that in Talaash or more substantial ones like those in Gangs of Wasseypur 2, Ragini MMS, Love, Sex Aur Dhokha or Kai Po Che. But here’s the thing: he’s strictly a non-flashy actor, not given to the flourishes and trademark traits that popular stars employ. You can foresee the kind of roles he will get in mainstream cinema but you can only hope that they do his talent justice.

Hansal Mehta sure has. And given us a film with no compromises. This is a brave, inspiring movie that, like all good films, will make you examine your own life and ideas. That it’s got a proper multiplex release is in itself a victory.

On the other side of the globe, Alfonso Cuaron has admitted that he was under tremendous pressure from the studio to add more traditional elements to his film — a love angle, a villain, you get the idea - but he resisted. Couldn’t have been easy for him. Or Hansal Mehta. Onscreen bravery requires plenty of the real stuff too.

Published on October 24, 2013

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