The Revenant – A Review

Alejandro G Iñárritu directs Leonardo Dicaprio and Tom Hardy in the gruesome survival tale The Revenant based partly on Michael Punke’s novel by the same name. Set in the 1820s in Montana and South Dakota’s harsh winter wilderness it is the story of Dicaprio’s Hugh Glass as he leads an expedition of Fur trappers which is attacked by the Arikara tribe of Native Americans who are out to avenge a kidnapped tribeswoman.

 

Leonardo Dicaprio plays Hugh Glass an experienced hunter with knowledge of the terrain, Tom Hardy plays hot-headed hunter John Fitzgerald, Domhall Gleeson plays captain Andrew Henry and Will Poulter plays Bridger one of the two young boys on the expedition the other being Glass’s Native American son Hawk.

When the hunting party is attacked by Arikara tribesman they make a hasty retreat back to their boat with their fur pelts and escape downriver. This drives a wedge between Glass and Fitzgerald who both have different ideas on how to get to safety. The crew trust Glass especially since Captain Henry seems to trust Glass implicitly. Fitzgerald is a poisoned presence from the very beginning and his nagging and antagonising of Glass only increases after the crew abandon the boat and hide the fur pelts to travel light and come back with armed reinforcements. Fitzgerald however agrees to stay back with Bridger and Hawk to care for Glass after he is mauled by a Grizzly Bear. What follows after is a harrowing tale of how Fitzgerald’s greed compels him to kill Hawk, leave Glass for the dead and lie to Bridger about approaching Arikara tribe and beat a hasty retreat to the barrack outpost to collect the money promised to him by Captain Henry if they stayed and gave Glass a proper funeral. What follows is Glass’s incredible journey from being left for dead to returning to avenge his son’s death. Along the way he encounters obstacles that are impossible to even imagine and seeing how this is partly based on true events it just makes it even more astonishing.

Emanuel Lubezki is gunning for a hat-trick after winning in 2013 for Gravity and in 2014 for Birdman and this year with Revenant his claim couldn’t be stronger. Gravity had that 7 ½ minute opening shot where not a word was uttered and you were given the full extent of the vastness of the space, Birdman had that continuous shot winding down the different nooks and crannies of a New York theatre and The Revenant has this stunning opening sequence of Glass and company being attacked by Arikara tribesmen it is as beautiful as it is brutal and unlike Gravity and Birdman there is fast and furious action here which while adrenaline charged still does not feel fuzzy or rushed, you can almost hear the whoosh of an arrow shooting past you. Lubezki has lit the entire movie with ambient light sources like campfire and candles and using natural lighting and the effect is eerie and haunting. He has shot the unforgiving landscape in a beautiful way, the breaking of the dawn has the full spectrum of colours as your eyes traverse the screen from left to right.  Ryuichi Sakamoto who did the music for Iñárritu’s confounding Babel does the music for The Revenant along with Carsten Nicolai and they underscore Lubezki’s beautiful images with a poignant and restrained original score. At times angry and at times quiet and subtle. The only problem for me is the seemingly choppy editing at the outset where the movie stutters to a start but then the editing becomes more seamless as the story progresses. Iñárritu tries to reach for something more than what the story should be about. At its heart The Revenant is a western revenge epic but by tying in Native American elements Iñárritu tries to elevate the story and in some places he manages to by showing how the native inhabitants of North America were brutalised by British and French who tried to “civilise” them, but then at other places it just becomes a babbling mess with floating dead wives and a pyramid of cattle skulls.

Leonardo and his epic journey towards an Oscar win is perhaps the stuff of urban legends and with this one he has landed another nomination and with a relatively weak field Leo might take one home finally and it is not undeserved. With most of the movie without the ability to speak Leo’s eyes and face do most of the work. He is brilliant here but somehow not as engaging as Tom Hardy is as John Fitzgerald. There are no two ways about it Fitzgerald is a man you hate from the very beginning to the very bitter end but what Tom Hardy brings to this character is so nuanced and almost nauseating is his ability to be the worst person in every scene he is in. if Hardy doesn’t win for Best supporting actor then it will be a bigger crime than Dicaprio being denied another one (in my books Dicaprio should have won for both Blood Diamond and The Departed.)

This is a movie that requires a certain amount of patience to sit through all the harrowing experiences Glass goes through and that is primarily a fault of the editing but there are plenty of rewards to be reaped as Lubezki reaches Deakins’ level of greatness with being able to capture the American wilderness and Dicaprio and Hardy put in terrific performances. Best of the year? Probably not I would take the other Hardy pic of one man’s epic survival against all odds in Mad Max Fury Road but this is still an incredible and important cinematic experience.

 

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Bajirao Mastani – A Review

Sanjay Leela Bhansali directs Ranveer Singh, Deepika Padukone and Priyanka Chopra in his long gestating magnum opus Bajirao Mastani based on the fabled romance of Bajirao Peshwa the great Maratha warrior and Mastani Bai the warrior princess of Bundelkhand. SLB is a master of star crossed lovers and breath-taking visuals that are second to none. It is no secret that SLB has likened Bajirao as a seminal tribute to the greatest Indian movie Mughl-e-Azam, a comparison that few would dare to want to draw to their own movies lest it fall short of the ShahJehan and Anarkali romance that shook the foundations of the Mughal dynasty.

 

Bajirao Mastani is stunning exercise in visual mastery that one has come to expect from SLB. While earlier Bhansali has relied primarily on enormous sets with ostentatious production values here he goes more for the panoramic shots of the horizon upon which many a battles erupt and end rather violently but the faint pinkish hue of the sky somehow applies a calming touch to the bloodshed. There is a shot where Bajirao mounts an attack on the Mughal king attacking Bundelkhand which has featured prominently in the trailers as well that shot is worthy of a LOTR comparison in terms of the fight choreography and the scene composition. There are many a visual cues that evoke a 300 or LOTR like vibe but not because they are replicated like in those Hollywood movies but more so because of the cleanness and the competence of the craft involved.

But war is not what Bhansali specialises in – Romance is where the auteur’s signature touch comes through. The main characters are introduced in such a casual fashion that it is clear that in Bhansali’s universe the story comes first and its stars later.

Speaking of its stars there are clear stand outs. Ranveer is fantastic once again as Bajirao Peshwa – the sword of the Maratha Empire that at once threatened to overthrow both the British and the Mughal invaders from India. Ranveer manages to strike a respectable restraint when portraying the poignant Maratha warrior and does not render him as a caricature but rather as someone worthy of the awe that surrounds him. Deepika as Mastani continues her winning streak with her ability to get to the essence of each of her characters and to pull each one off with an exquisite elegance. Madhubala she is not but the grace and poise with which she carries herself in royal courts is brilliantly juxtaposed by the fierce warrior that she is on the field. Deepika either has some magical powers or all the cinematographers she works with love her and are able to light her in ways that not even the most famed beauties have ever been shot as. There is a luminosity to her which seems to emanate from within her rather than from the outside. Priyanka Chopra as Kashibai, Bajirao’s first wife is also wonderfully restrained. She carries her proud self while still letting slip her vulnerability in moments when she confronts Bajirao after he marries Mastani. While Deepika’s gestures are more languid and lyrical befitting a Muslim princess, those of Priyanka are more energetic and exaggerated as one would expect the women of Maharashtra to embody. Their dance off in Pinga is SLB’s directional nuances at his best. Priyanka wears a silk blouse while Deepika wears a velvet one, Deepika holds her head high while Priyanka bobs hers enthusiastically, Deepika arches her back yet manages to look long and lean while Priyanka goes in for the more energetic hip action. Both similar yet strikingly different. This is why when people complain that Bhansali goes for mostly ostentatious sets they seem to miss the minute details that he puts in to etching out his characters. Milind Soman as Pant Pradhan to Peshwa and Tanvi Azmi as Peshwa’s mother are important characters in the story and the choice of the actors couldn’t be any better. Milind Soman is rather unrecognizable yet entirely impressive.

No Bhansali movie is complete without a smashing sound track with memorable songs and tunes that linger on in your head long after you have left the theatre. And Bajirao Mastani is no different. Deewani Mastani is without a doubt the most visually stunning song, Pinga evokes a Dola Re déjà vu and has a catchy hook. Albela Sajan seems to be a straight lift from Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam but with the reworked music works well. The only sore spot is the Malhari song, that song has no place in the final cut of the movie it should have been left on the chopping floors.

Camera work by cinematographer Sudeep Chaterjee is beautiful. The scenes with Priyanka coming forth with the Aarti to welcome Bajirao, the slicing of the peacock feather and the dagger thrown at Chimmaji Appa are particularly captivating but it is the entire sequence in the Aaina mahal during Deewani Mastani and the triple jump and slash scene in the battle field are so good that they will become the hallmarks against which future cinematic references will be made.

The story and particularly the climax evokes strong Devdas vibes, The nods to Mughl-e-Azam are more than a few the Holi Song is Mohe Panghat pe, The jailing of Mastani is Utho hamara salam le lo. But despite these minor flaws this is a stunning piece of cinema and without a doubt the best I have seen this year coming out of Bollywood.

Watch this for Bhansali who for me is the best director working in Bollywood today who delivers with a consistency, a visionary who makes going to cinema worth it. Watch it for Ranveer who continues to defy expectations and delivers a performance that is equal parts abandon and equal parts restraint. Watch it for Priyanka who shines like a finely cut diamond in the hands of the master craftsman. And watch it for Deepika Padukone who continues to defy the law of averages and keeps getting better with each movie and is at present peer-less in Bollywood and the queen continues to reign supreme as the warrior princess.

Ashok Banker’s Ramayana Series

Indian Authors are finally having their moment in the sun where they are big news and attracting the attention of the publishing houses, production houses and the readers in general.

Chetan Bhagat’s novel “3 mistakes of my life” was beautifully adapted into a poignant and moving motion picture Kai Po Che by Abhishek Kapoor. Bhagat’s previous novel was adapted into one of the highest grossing Indian movies of all times 3 idiots. I am neither a fan of Bhagat nor of 3 Idiots but Kai Po Che was a wonderful movie.

Couple of days ago, Amish Tripathi was paid a whopping 5Cr. an amount unheard of as an advance for his future books (which Amish says he hasn’t decided on the subject matter). This is due to the hugely popular Shiva Trilogy which reimagines the myth of Shiva and concocts a thriller-like story. Amish is being heralded as Indian Literary scene’s newest pop star.  Something akin to a Lady Gaga if I may draw that comparison – because while entertaining the Shiva Trilogy’s first two books are a disappointment when it comes to the prose. The story is gripping but big reveal of the second book was visible to me from a mile away – was still good but pop-star ish.

Now let me come to the reason why I set out to write this piece. When I read about the pop-star comment being made I immediately made the Lady Gaga vs. Adele comparison. And in this case Ashok Banker is analogous to Adele. A person so talented that their work will live on for decades to come.

I recently finished the 8-part Ramayana Series and am presently a few pages into Krishna Coriolis Series. What follows is a summary of the 8 books of the Ramayana Series with my overall review of the books.

Prince of Ayodhya: This is the kick off to the big adventure and Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayana being my only exposure to the great epic of India I was a relative novice to the various nuances and supporting characters outside of Ram, Sita and Laxman. The story begins with the arrival of Vishwamitra to Ayodhya to ask Dashratha to send Ram with the Rishi to provide protection to his ashram from the demoness Tataka in the feared Bhayanak Van. Banker takes liberties with many elements from the “accepted” version of Valmiki/Tulsidas versions of Ramayana but the end result is a 70 mm rendering of the story that deserves the histrionics on display. Ram is not the god we have come to know him of. But he is on his way of reaching mythical status.  The story ends on a cliffhanger with Vishwamitra announcing their departure for mithila to attend a wedding – when Ram asks whose wedding The Rishi answers matter-of-factly “Yours”

Siege of Mithila: The second novel starts off shattering the damsel-in-distress image of Sita. Sita is as formidable an ally for Ram as Lakshman is. The delicate bond that forms between Ram and Sita on their journey back to Mithila while Sita is incognito is beautifully written. The Introduction of the demonic Ravana, his plans to invade the Aryan nations, his appearance at Sita’s Swayamwar are stuff of magic. There is a lot of Magic also on display. A chapter of great note is the rescuing of Ahilya from her banishment as a stone at the bottom of the river and the vetal attacks. This book is dark and only a precursor of things to come. The story ends with the Ram & Lakshman unleashing the Bramha-astra to annihilate Ravana’s advancing armies.  And the newly married brothers and their consorts proceed to Ayodhya.

Demons of Chitrakut: the story picks up as the wedding party that left from Mithila for Ayodhya is stopped by Parshuram, the legendary Axe-wielding avatar of Vishnu who is incensed that Ram broke the bow of Shiva during the Swayamwar with Sita. The passage about the wedding party’s arrival at Ayodhya the very visual description of the Raag Deepak that was specifically created to welcome Ram home comes alive in front of your eyes as you read each word.  What follows is perhaps the second most famous scene from Ramayana, the banishment of Ram for 14 years by the treacherous Kaikeyi. Here too Banker takes liberties in firmly establishing the good vs. the evil and painting Kaikeyi as the hapless tragic heroine under the sorcerous spell of Manthara.  Once in exile the story slows down with a few brief incidents of high drama, the shaming of Surpankha, the fight with the last surviving group of Rakshaasas who are goaded by Suparnaka to fight Ram. The story jumps a decade of living in exile in a few paragraphs and finishes with Ram making the final stand at Janasthan.

Armies of Hanuman: Hanuman is perhaps more loved than his Idol Ram. Banker spends considerable time lovingly and carefully building up the character of Hanuman. The story sees Ram, Sita and Lakshman retire to Panchvati after their battle with the Rakshaasas, Ratnakaran – the bear killer retires to meditate and will return later in the story as Valmiki himself.  Armies of Hanuman also features the most retold bit of the Ramayana story – the kidnapping of Sita by Ravana in the pushpak vahan. The way it is described is intense and thrilling. There is something almost voyeuristic about being outside and watching the story unfold.  The Story ends with Ram making the journey to Kishkinda to kill Vali and reinstate Sugreeva as the king of the vanar kingdom. This is military strategy at its best – Rama not having finished 14 years in exile does not want to ask Ayodhya for her army to rescue Sita from Lanka and instead tries to bring in the Vanar Army. It is here that Ram is anointed Siyavar Ramachandra – and the scene leading up to it is brilliantly written, wherein you wait on every word that ram utters urging the vanars to help him rescue his beloved.

Bridge of Rama: This story takes place 2 weeks after the events of Armies of Hanuman. Ram having successfully killed Vali and gaining the trust and respect of Sugreeva and his kingdom starts on a journey to the Lanka to rescue Sita. Thanks to Sugreeva and Hanuman vanar armies of other kingdoms also join Ram’s cause and each of the vanar species is described in exquisite detail. Hanuman goes from being a loyal Vanar friend of Ram to becoming the Vanar-Deva hybrid – the son of Vayu the god of wind. With his super-human powers Hanuman is able to accomplish spectacular fetes which form the most thrilling part of the novel. Hanuman through his great meditation in the cave  summons Jambvan to his cause and the bear armies. This rag tag army proceeds to the southern tip of the arya nation to build a bridge. When at the behest of Ravana the sea god Varun wreaks havoc and destroys the bridge Rama unleashes the arrows of celestial power given to him by Ansuya and causes Varun to line up Whales to allow Ram’s army to pass to land ashore Lanka.  This novel also features the devastation of Lanka after Hanuman’s tail is set on fire. The novel’s pace slackens a bit and there is a lot of talking that is going on and not enough action, but the beauty of Banker’s prose lifts the tedious passages several notches and delivers such moving moments as the point where Ram is anointed Maryada Purushottam .

King Of Ayodhya : upon landing in Lanka Ram’s army is surprised to find lanka to be a lush green paradise and not the hell that myths and legends proclaimed it to be.  But soon with the use of Maya Ravana raises a 1000 ft. wall to box in the army of vanars and bears and manages to kill scores of them. This novel makes up for the lack of action in Bridges by setting the stage for the final confrontation between Ram and Ravana. Many characters are introduced to the mix and each is beautifully fleshed out. This is the hallmark of Banker’s writing style where he goes to great detail to describe the physical attributes and the mannerism so that you are not merely reading about a character you are actually watching the army general vajradant charging at Ram’s army. Kumbhkaran, Indrajit, Mandodari are all fleshed out in the greatest of details possible.  The battle scenes, the final killing of Ravana, Sita’s return to Ram, the Agnipariksha and the return to Ayodhya after Vibhishena is appointed as the king of Lanka are magical under the penmanship of Banker.

This is where Banker decided to leave the Ramayana series and goes on to extol the reasons why. His forewords and the afterword to King of Ayodhya are so beautifully worded that it feels like a personal conversation with the author. When he tells you that he cannot bring himself to the idea that the Ram who waged a war to save his beloved Sita would so cruelly banish her based on rumors you tend to nod your head in agreement or want to argue with him that it was Dharma that compelled Ram to do so but it is because all through the 6 books Banker like a wonderful story teller has brought you in to this magical fantastical world that he has taken meticulous details to bring to life.

However like Valmiki added the Uttarakand, Banker goes on to write two more books to explore the circumstances in which Ram could go from the Siyavar to Sita banisher.

The Vengeance of Ravana: This 7th book of the Ramayana series appears to be mostly imagined as none of the events from this book come to mind when I try to remember the TV series from an age gone by. This is more sci-fi than mythology but still a gripping read. There are threats that are coming to fruition as part of some master plan that Ravana set in motion even before Ram was born. Here the notions of Fate and Karma are explored; here Ram is made aware that he is in fact a Vishnu-avatar. Banker in his foreword mentions that this book may leave you frustrated because it will not give you any answers but leave more questions – I tend to agree with him because there are several parallel threads which seem to going on without any connection to each other. While seemingly incomplete the book is not without its thrills. The story of Aatikeya a character I was completely unaware about is interesting; the part where they see parallel universes through the vortal is mind-bending sci-fi.

Sons of Sita: The unavailability of this book had me going from bookstore to bookstore asking to be put on the list to be notified when the book became available, finally after not being able to find the book I bought the book off Amazon for my Kindle app on my iPod and it starts off with a Ram so unrecognizable from Banker’s earlier books that it takes a while to fully comprehend how much time has passed and how changed Samrath Ramachandra is. This book introduces us to Luv and Kush the twin sons of Sita borne in exile at the ashram of Valmiki. Their youthful exuberance and childish innocence is the perfect foil for the events that will soon unfold as Ram embarks on an expansion campaign via the Ashwamegha Yagna. The Ashwamegha Yagna takes perhaps the most distant route from the versions in Valmiki’s version but it also adds a sense of adventure on a grand scale. The subsequent reconciliation of Ram and Sita, the final Agnipariksha that is asked off Sita, her sense of betrayal and the vanishing act by urging her mother earth to swallow her all bear the Banker Trademark that of detailed descriptive writing which paints more pictures than most authors. my favourite line from the book that still runs a chill down my spine is uttered by Sita ” Then be forever a broken god”  just before she is swallowed by the earth … and this is also perhaps the reason why Ram is a flawed god.

While Ashok Banker takes many liberties with the Ramayana Series he does acknowledge them at the very outset. I wasn’t affected in the least because I had no history of having read Ramayana earlier and only patchy memory of watching the Ramayana on Sunday morning as a kid. As someone who loves movies these novels are like reading screenplay, each scene is vividly described and comes alive in front of your eyes, you feel like you’ve known every character intimately and are invested in the outcome of each of their journeys.  This Ramayana series was the reason why I am now obsessed with the Indian mythology as a store of fantastic stories, and the fact that Banker has a personal mission of writing a 65 book library of everything mythology is making me salivate as to when I will be able to get through reading all of it. Mr. Banker Thank you for all the wonderful adventures in Ayodhya and Lanka and everywhere enroute, I’ll see you in Dwarka and then we shall proceed to Hastinapur.