Pursuant to my rant about maturity in Telugu films, I’ve come to a realization about the Telugu film industry. Calling most Telugu movies a “Film” or the industry “Cinema” is not consistent with the way the term is normally used in other film industries.
Usually a film refers to a coherent piece of work, an invention that is internally uniform and distinguishable from other pieces of work in its ethos, not just because it is on the same physical tape or disc. The story, plot, screenplay, cinematography, or a combination of these and other elements serve to give it a distinct character. You can’t take a piece of one film and put it into a different film and have it make sense in the new context.
Movies in the Hindi and Telugu film industries often aim at a different ideal. When people from abroad stare in amazement at Indian cinema and wonder why there is a song-and-dance sequence all of a sudden, what they are missing is this: an Indian film is essentially variety entertainment. This kind of entertainment has been popular traditionally in India for centuries; a troupe of entertainers traveling from town to town putting on stage shows, with music, dance, acrobatics, a bit of drama, clowns and buffoonery, all thrown in.
The Indian movie is often a simple migration of this centuries-old motif to a different medium. The plot or story, if anything, only serves to hold the audience’s interest and to give the movie a natural ending. The main offering is the song-and-dance routines, the music, the fights. Indeed, many Telugu movies are reviewed this way: not holistically, but as separate departments: songs, fights, comedy, dialogues, photography. A review might read: “Dialogues in this film are very good. First half has non-stop comedy. Fights by Peter Hynes are excellent. Photography is terrific. Dancing by hero and heroine is very well choreographed. The hero’s style is terrific, he lives up to his image of Prince Charming with his mesmerizing looks (sic). The heroine is in her element with traditional costumes and cute mannerisms.” And so on. “She is sensuality personified,” says one review about the lead actress in a movie. “Her wardrobe in this film includes dresses ranging from traditional sarees to mini skirts.” Hmm.
There’s been a spate of new movies coming my way lately. What’s surprising is many of them are good. After Dor, Manorama Six Feet Under and Dharm, I got my hands on Johnny Gaddar.
Soon after watching the movie, I re-read Jabberwock’s brief review of that movie, and checked out director Sriram Raghavan’s Rediff slide show on his inspirations for the film. (I’m guessing this film isn’t inspired in the usual Bollywood sense of lifting scene ideas directly from other films; to put it pompously, it pays homage to those films.) I must say I Sriram Raghavan sounds very learned on films; I hadn’t even heard of 8 out of the 10 films he cites. So, unfortunately, I might be missing out on several homage elements and similarities that I could otherwise have drawn. I’m not too upset about this, because I enjoyed the film tremendously for what it is.
Johnny Gaddar is the story of five crooks who are about to pull off some sort of deal brokered by a corrupt policeman; the deal isn’t made clear but it doesn’t matter to the film. They have to invest 50 lakhs each and are supposed to get back 100 lakhs after the deal. The five have a sort of “coalition dharma”: they’re in it together. But one of them plots to decamp alone with all of the money as well as the wife of one of the others, with whom he is having an affair.
I was struck by how carefully thought out the plot was. The plot is the weak point in most Indian movies. It usually lacks innovation, or if it has innovation, lacks coherence. On the rare occasions when it has both, there are still many other ways for the filmmaker to mess things up: Johnny Gaddar has a great (though uncomplicated) plot and manages to keep all the other things together as well. The sequence of events is carefully thought out, and though some discussions online point to seeming inconsistencies, I didn’t agree with those discussions and wasn’t able to find any inconsistencies of my own.
Building on the foundation of a good plot, Raghavan handles the various turns and characters deftly. He avoids some common pitfalls such as pacing or detail erraticism. The film moves along at a good clip, and the pace doesn’t flag disappointingly anywhere. As well, the level of detail is consistent throughout the film; unlike so many other directors, Raghavan doesn’t get tired and take shortcuts in some chunks of the movie. This doesn’t mean the level of detail is exactly the same throughout the film; that would just be boring. Rather, detail is added when a certain emotional effect is sought, but not arbitrarily reduced. The viewer is kept engaged right until the end.
Apropos of which, the ending is a grouch that I often have on many Indian (and even foreign) films. If the sequels to The Matrix had displayed any signs of above-invertebrate intelligence, the world would be a different place today. If Anurag Kashyap hadn’t gone berserk in the second half of No Smoking, we’d have a true modern masterpiece to boast of in Hindi cinema. I think this inability to think through a great ending is a natural human failing: it’s easier to create a mystery (which just requires you to think up something out of the ordinary) than to solve it satisfyingly (which requires you to logically reconcile that extraordinary invention with the ordinary). Even Arthur C. Clarke came up against this wall when he tried to write sequels to Rendezvous with Rama. Raghavan, of course, isn’t quite as ambitious in this film; nevertheless it doesn’t diminish the satisfying ending he was able to create. What struck me was that you know what’s going to happen, but the suspense stays with you until the director chooses to reveal it, to the very second. You don’t guess it a minute before, 10 seconds before or even a nanosecond before Raghavan tells you about it.
The tone of the film is dark, in keeping with the incidents in its plot; but visually it runs the gamut from traditional noir chiaroscuro to bright bubblegum tones. One thing I was really impressed with was Raghavan’s ability to create a mood. It reminded me of Anurag Kashyap’s evocative visual brilliance in No Smoking. Johnny Gaddar isn’t quite as superlatively evocative, but it’s halfway there, and its medium is screen movement rather than visual style per se. Two memorable scenes are the train scene where elements that every Indian is familiar with are brushed onto the viewer’s senses: the peculiar carriage movement of the Indian train, the flashes of light and dark out the window, the small railway platforms quickly passed, the sudden rushing onset of bridge trusses and other trains. Many movies have this scene, but the elements picked out in this movie are best-of-class. An excellent demonstration of Raghavan’s abilities is the tension created by the approach of the ticket collector during the train sequence. Another scene is the apartment search by Zakir Hussain’s character (identified by Jabberwock). Again, it is a scene familiar through firsthand experience for most of us viewers: the frustration of futilely searching for something you know must be there, the racking of brains to think of another place it might be, the brief flare of hope when a previously overlooked spot is identified, and the crashing despair of a dashed hope.
Now while this film has many things going for it, it is a low key film. “Exciting” would be a wrong word to use, though “gripping” is right. In other words, while you feel with the protagonist, it doesn’t evoke emotional highs from the viewer. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; I’m just trying to explain what type of movie it is.
The performances by the entire cast are very competent. Dharmendra seems to have drawn a lot of flak online for his dialogue delivery and his English, but I actually thought his way of talking was pretty natural. The interestingly named Neil Mukesh, in his first film, does a great job of depicting both his fear and determination.
Overall, it’s one of those films I would put in the “must watch” category.