There was a time when the plot of a typical mainstream Hindi film was nothing more than a straightforward love story, whereas a film from the West (Hollywood) could deal with any of the myriad aspects of the human condition, not necessarily romantic love, aided by sophisticated or experimental storytelling suiting the subject. But after watching two of last week's releases it seems the tables have turned. How? Let's look at Aiyaary and The Shape of Water.
After establishing himself as an ace filmmaker through easy-to-understand content-driven films like A Wednesday, Special 26, Baby, and M. S. Dhoni: The Untold Story, and with each release garnering more moolah at the box-office than its predecessor, Neeraj Pandey has gone all out and attempted a tricky narrative that seems to combine all his earlier subjects: secret agencies, national interest, and financial scams.
At first, it is not an easy film to grasp. In the first 20-30 minutes everyone on screen seems to be tackling something urgent, but the audience is left clueless as to what's going on. A special agent seems to be taking possibly life-changing decisions and we are not sure of the motives and reasons behind his actions. We are not even entirely sure if he is playing good or bad. We are left to assess everything on the face value. This did put off several in the audience, who were looking for a narrative that is either gripping or easy to grasp. At least that's what Mr Pandey has delivered in the past.
But little does one realise that that initial confusion is where the genius of the storyteller lies. Mr Pandey does not spoonfeed, even if it means garnering a bit of disinterest. Rather, he keeps dropping clues, one by one, even if at a slow pace, to help the attentive ones in the audience form a picture that gets clear and clear as the movie progresses.
This is also where the tables seem to have turned. Mr Pandey's narrative is multi-layered, just like the subject of the film--corruption, which, as the story bares, runs deep into the layers of the system. The storytelling is sophisticated and experimental, one that expects the audience to not just solve the puzzle, which a typical crime thriller will, but also to first fully comprehend the puzzle. For those who are able to, it leaves you gasping as you realise how deceptively he brings your attention to a notorious but known scam by disguising it in other scams.
If Aiyaary is the art of deception, the real ayiyaar here is Mr Pandey. The convoluted approach is nothing but narrative-ception, i.e. narrative inside a narrative inside a narrative..., which exposes the entwined, deeply entrenched and omnipresent nature of corruption.
There is a love story embedded in there as well and even though it is significant to the central storyline, it is treated as secondary--important but not time-and-attention consuming. In fact, the focus on the male actors entangled in different kinds and levels of conflict is so high that female actors are left lacking in impact, whether by the choice of casting or by the lines they get. Rakul Preet Singh looks promising but not entirely matches in stature. Lilette Dubey's cameo is a waste. Unfortunately, the male leads also don't impress much. They are sincere but not impactful. Compared to them, the cameos of Naseeruddin Shah and Anupam Kher are handled and placed carefully and strategically, almost as rewards for the audience.
All in all, it is the writing that rules. The writer-director's imprint is stronger than anyone else's. If it is remembered, this film will be remembered as a Neeraj Pandey film and not a Manoj Bajpayee or Siddharth Malhotra film.
The Shape of Water
The Shape of Water is a straightforward love story between two vulnerable beings. No layers in the narrative, only, maybe, in the setting. The film uses the backdrop of the cold-war era to make a fantasy creature the object of interest to both the Americans and the Russians. Amidst the crossfire of military interests is a mute janitor, a girl, who feels a connection with the captivated and experimented-upon creature, and rescues it.
I found the story very similar in theme and elements to Mr del Toro's earlier films: the Devil's Backbone (2001) and Pan's Labyrinth (2006). All three are set amidst the background of political conflict, where innocent and vulnerable protagonists make their way against the will of tyrannical oppressor/s. The situation remains dire but the former seek refuge in the power of the supernatural or fantasy to counter the dreadful.
In the Hindi films of the past decades, the characters usually believed that god stands for those who have no one for help. In Mr del Toro's film, the power of imagination or fantasy acts as that saviour.
What sets his films apart, however, is the way he contrasts the comfort of fantasy to the gore of war, which is astoundingly heartwrenching. With The Shape of Water, he delivers a powerful punch with the help of very nuanced screen direction, attention to period details, consistent reasoning and visual appeal that pervades the entire duration of the film. Here he refers to film noir for the play of light and shadows.
Hindi films would seldom be so thorough and referential in scope. But the storyline demonstrating the good that unconditional love, selflessness in action, and faith in fantasy can bring, is, arguably, close to home. ;)
Director: Neeraj Pandey
Cast: Manoj Bajpayee, Siddharth Malhotra, Kumud Mishra, Vikram Gokhale, Adil Hussain, Naseeruddin Shah, Anupam Kher
Genre: Crime drama, corruption exposé
Duration: 160 minutes
Release date: 16th February 2018
Shape of Water
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Cast: Sally Hawkins, Doug Jones, Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Shannon, Michael Stuhlbarg
Genre: Romance, period drama
Duration: 124 minutes
Release date: 16th February 2018