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Monday, March 16, 2009

Gulaal and The Future of Indian Cinema

(Originally published here on

I saw Gulaal today in a crumbling, fading, bleeding ramshackle masquerading as a cinema hall….at least from the outside. Gulaal was sandwiched between two contemporary gems “Dil Ko Churaanewaali” and “Maa Kasam Badla Loonga”. (I would have uploaded the posters as well…but wasn’t entirely sure where PFC stands on this…) The name of the theatre(Bombay Talkies) was emblazoned in massive letters, which were slightly dangly, at best. The balcony seats were the prized possessions, at thirty bucks apiece.

So far so good…..

The tangy aftertaste of “Dev D” hadn’t quite left the palate, and the prospect of another Anurag Kashyap film meant I was schoolboy-on-springheels excited and a bit apprehensive, too… for what if it flattered to deceive?I’ve seen hardcore Sachin fans solemnly declare that their man is going to smash every record in the book; everytime he goes to bat. I’ve a friend who has more than a thing for Federer….everytime Nadal overpowers the Swiss ace(as he does so often now) my friend declares that this would be undoubtedly the last time such a travesty would take place….

As the marquee started, my thoughts were, this better be good.

150 awesome minutes later, all I could think was, “Which do I like better, Dev D or Gulaal? “

Anurag Kashyap said in an interview that Gulaal was his “angriest film”. Sure enough, anger of all sizes and shapes can be found… Kay Kay’s alternating quiet menace and searing blazes, the laidback sarcastic anger of Abhimanyu Singh , who is a revelation as Rananjay “Ransa” , the prince who loathes his royal family and everything they stand for. As he acknowledges himself, he drinks, womanizes and generally is a wastrel, but he has a mind of his own and is sickened by the dinosaur that is his father, His Highness and others of his ilk.

In fact, so good is Abhimanyu that he manages to outshine(briefly) the man from whom we’ve come to expect bravura performances as a matter of course.

By now, it is more or less accepted that it’s humanly impossible to blink while Kay Kay Menon is on screen. Yet again, he captures the imagination, like few others can, as Dukey Bana, the man who is willing to get his hands as dirty as you like, for his dream of a united Rajputana state.
Newbie Raja Chowdhary(who is also a co-writer) plays Dilip Singh, a bespectacled, serious young Rajput, who is initially disapproving of Dukey’s political machinations. Raja looks the part so much that for the most part, we don’t mind his often amateurish performance, which only gains steam in the second half. Aditya Shrivastava, another Kashyap favourite, plays Karan, who is the illegitimate son of the Maharaja, Ransa’s father. He and his sister Kiran(played by newbie Ayesha Mohan) are the alternate power centre to Dukey Bana.

Before the films starts, we are told that Gulaal was inspired from the song “Yeh duniya agar mil bhi jaaye” by Sahir Ludhianvi…… (there is a song of the same name featured in the film)and also the other poets who had a vision of India. They would’ve tipped their hats to Kashyap, I’m sure…..because the writing here is some of the best I’ve seen in Indian cinema. The outrage articulated by these poets of yore has been captured brilliantly by using the idiom of the lost glory of the Rajputs.

In Sarnath Bannerjee’s wickedly funny graphic novel “Corridor”, a character quips, “People are like onions, baba….they have layers and layers.” He might have been talking about Dukey Bana, Kay Kay’s character. Dukey is genuinely outraged about the state of his people, and has seen his family suffer the anguish and the alienation associated with the transition to democracy. To that end, he is ruthless in order to gain the power to reverse this position. However, all too often, he becomes painfully aware of his limitations. Kay Kay’s blazing eyes are pitiless, masterful, holding us all in the illusion of immense power.

Kay Kay’s not-so imposing physique is slyly used here by Kashyap. There’s a scene where Dukey Bana screams in frustration, standing at one of the windows of his mansion. The frailty of Menon’s body is nicely dovetailed with the aggressive instincts of his character, coupled with the natural machismo of the Rajputs in general.

The female characters in the film are a study in contrast. Jesse Randhawa, previously seen in the “Jab Bhi Cigarette” number from No Smoking, plays Anuja, a character which is low on dialogue but high on impact, and Randhawa acquits herself reasonably well. The cool conniving bitch is played competently by Ayesha Mohan, while Mahie Gill, playing Dukey Bana’s mistress, has a couple of songs, a couple of funny scenes and that’s about it. But as I said in the Dev D post, at this point I’ll be happy just to see her at all. She has an intriguing mix of abandon and assertiveness….heady stuff.

Some brilliant supporting hands, by Deepak Dobriyal in particular,ensure that the action never slacks. (Seeing Dobriyal in this film, I couldn’t help but think of Kashyap’s post-filmfare comments about two years ago about how Dobriyal’s performance in Omkara was “*****ing better than Abhishek’s performance in Guru” :) )

The music of the film has to be commended. Theatre veteran Piyush Mishra, (remember Kaka from “Maqbool”?) has written and composed the songs. He also plays one of the most macabre cameos I’ve ever seen on screen. When I say he’s the boss as far as music goes, I mean that quite literally. For he is the sole character upon whom music is picturised…. A sort of deranged minstrel of reworked folk ditties and patriotic hokum, with a typical Rajasthani bahuroopiya, or masquerade artist, in tow. As the John Lennon-worshipping bard, Mishra is haunting, to say the least.

As things start to get out of hand on screen, Mishra gets more and more manic, becoming a sort of a collective conscience for us. If the use of music in Dev D was innovative, here it’s a masterstroke. In the anthemic chant “Aarambh” Mishra claims
“Jis kavi ki kalpana mein

Zindagi ho prem geet

Us kavi ko aaj tum nakaar do”
Perhaps fittingly, a couple of days back, Anupama Chopra called Kashyap the “Anti-Yash Chopra” !

The cinematography of Rajeev Ravi, who wowed us all with Dev D, is back with a vengeance here. The red coloured gulaal smeared over the faces of the Rajputs like war paint is an image which will stay with you long after the closing credits. Red is clearly the colour of choice here, whether it is the colour of the frequent bloodshed pervading the film, red is the fiery colour of passion……

Gulaal works above all, because of its searing honesty…. a throwback to the times when outrage was still considered cool. Films like this have the richness and the scope comparable to the best of modern literary fiction…. and to my mind few films fit this bill better than Gulaal. Answering my own question earlier in this post, I would say Dev D is still my favourite Kashyap film… but I suppose at the end of the day… I’m just barely out my teens, and the urbane chic “coolness quotient” of Dev D coupled with the natural chutzpah of Abhay Deol is irresistible right now. Perhaps, ten years down the line…..

Seeing how Anurag Kashyap has stamped his authority all over 2009 with Dev D, and now Gulaal, one of my favourite quotes springs to mind. In 1974, Jon Landau, music critic for the Rolling Stone magazine was sufficiently moved to say
“I’ve seen Rock and Roll’s future and its name is Bruce Springsteen”.
Now this is precisely the kind of soppy prophesizing which was in vogue back then…..but Springsteen did become the Boss after all…….

So maybe, I’ve seen the future of Indian cinema after all.

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