Two Indias

Print edition : December 07, 2007

ABHAY DEOL IN the main role in "Manorama Six Feet Under". - PHOTOGRAPHS: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Navdeep Singhs film explores the dark corners of small-town life; Sriram Raghavans is set in fast-track Mumbai.

TWO films released recently received far less attention than they deserved. While both are classifiable as noirish thrillers, they are as far removed from each other, in their treatment, as mofussil India and the glittering metropolis. Navdeep Singhs debut feature film Manorama Six Feet Under is set in Lakhot, a back-of-beyond desert town in Rajasthan, while Sriram Raghavans Johnny Gaddaar is set in fast-track Mumbai. In the first, we are unravelling a web of crime and intrigue alongside an unlikely amateur investigator; in the other, we are watching how a murderer is going to cover his tracks. Johnny Gaddaar moves with thrilling speed, Manorama with thrilling slowness.

Lakhot is the kind of small town where everyone wants to know who is sleeping with whom; at the same time, murder and other depraved crimes go unremarked. Satyaveer Singh Randhawa (Abhay Deol), an assistant engineer in the Public Works Department, has just been suspended on a corruption charge. In his time off from his sarkari life, Satyaveer is a failed novelist whose debut thriller, Manorama, sold only 200 copies. His creativity is now as parched as the surrounding desert. His wife, Nimmi (Gul Panag), alternately shrewish and supportive, runs a beauty parlour from a room of their house.

One night, as the Randhawas are watching television, a mysterious woman (Sarika) appears at their door. After introducing herself as Mrs P.P. Rathore, the wife of the State Minister for Irrigation (Kulbhushan Kharbanda), she tells Satyaveer that she suspects her husband of having an affair. She wants photographic proof of the liaison, and since there is no private detective in the small town, she would like him as the writer of a detective thriller and a person who must know something about detective work to carry out the investigation for her. Satyaveer finds himself accepting the commission, only to be drawn into a web of intrigue and murder in this corner of the desert where, as the films tagline goes, nothing is as it seems.

The film begins with the unheroic hero, Satyaveer, riding his motorcycle along a narrow road in the desert when suddenly the woman of his dreams appears before him: Yana Gupta herself, dressed in the stereotypical Rajasthani costume that we see in touristy films but never in real life or even in Manorama itself. She is carrying a bottle of mineral water, the water itself becoming as much an object of desire in this drought-stricken landscape as the woman. She opens the bottle and begins slowly, seductively, to pour the water on herself. Satyaveer rides along until he drives straight through her and the pieces of the mirage fly apart as he passes by.

A cog in the vast machine of Indian bureaucracy, Satyaveer is morally compromised he has accepted bribes (including his cherished new motorcycle, which is actually a gift from a construction company) and is now trapped within the system. This investigation is, for him, the first project he has taken on independently, without family members or superiors taking decisions on his behalf. But this adventure holds some shocks. His mobility, already restricted to Lakhot and its environs, is successively diminished: first, goons steal his motorbike, then they break up his scooter, leaving him with no option but to thumb a lift back to town.

Visually, Navdeep Singhs Rajasthan, filmed by cinematographer Arvind Kannabiran, is slow, dusty and provincial, scattered with stunted trees and immobile earthmovers. Everything seems to be covered with a thin layer of dust, and time itself seems to stand still in this corner of the hinterland. The vast, open spaces are only occasionally scattered with man-made structures here a solitary water tank, there a government office, elsewhere a crumbling feudal palace to remind us of the several layers of history held within these buff-coloured landscapes. And even a promised canal that may never become a reality but in whose name tenant families are evicted, land is bought and sold, and the town is given another pipe dream to sustain its residents imaginations for years. The Minister himself is the former raja of Lakhot a reminder that feudal traditions tend to live on in different garbs. The small town waits endlessly for water, dreaming of the life-giving liquid, its taps running dry in mid-bath and its fish tanks offering vicarious relief in the midst of the dryness. Life in Lakhot is in fact a little like living inside a fish bowl, with everyone constantly watching everyone else.

Johnny Gaddaar, Sriram Raghavans second film after the Ram Gopal Varma production Ek Hasina Thi, is a decidedly urban creation, its plot unravelling with breakneck speed in fast-paced Mumbai. Five members of a gang Seshadri, Prakash, Vikram, Shardul and Shiva (played by Dharmendra, Vinay Pathak, Neil Mukesh, Zakir Hussain and Daya Shetty respectively) run a dance and gambling club. One day they come together to invest Rs.50 lakh each in a murky transaction that would double their investment within a few days. But one of the five, Vikram, who is just a little greedier, a little more desperate, and has a greater appetite for risk than the others, decides to make off with the entire amount, setting off a rapid-fire sequence of events that gets him deeper and deeper into trouble and has the audience wondering at every turn of the plot how he is going to get away with it.

If Manorama begins with a mirage, Johnny Gaddaar begins by showing us the illicit fulfilment of desire. A few moments into the film, we see the flashy young hero driving down the Mumbai-Sholapur highway in pursuit of a bus on which the woman he loves (Rimi) is travelling. He screeches to a halt just in front of the bus and, pretending to be a police officer, asks the conductor to get the woman off the vehicle. His woman is no mirage: on the contrary, she is so real that he can write on her naked back with the tip of his finger.

Raghavans Mumbai, filmed by C.K. Muraleedharan, is stunningly vivid, edgy and brittle, with the clock ticking away restlessly and everything seeming to happen just but only just in time. The film is almost claustrophobically set in interiors, with dark, crowded club scenes sliced through with throbbing light and packed with figures that sway as if in a trance. Underscoring the ceaseless reinventiveness of this urban setting, we see a much-rehearsed argument between gang members Prakash, who owns the plot of land on which the club operates, and Shardul, who wants to tear it down and build a hotel instead. Yet there are also reminders that natural wildness has not entirely disappeared from the city: when Prakash and Vikram decide to confront Shardul, we see them standing beside a clump of tall grass growing with abandon in the foreground while high-rises stretch across the skyline behind them and this becomes the setting for yet another murder.

The films differ in the spheres of action that they give to their protagonists. If Manorama shows us a mild-mannered Satyaveer floating inside his fish bowl, Vikram, in glittering Mumbai, is unapologetically in the fast lane. He is out to make a quick fortune, involved in a dangerous affair, and ready to do whatever it takes to survive. He thrives on mobility: using four modes of transport, he moves between three cities in two days. The lifestyles described in the films are also different, and not only in little things such as the chai, parathas and malpuas with which Lakhot makes do, while in Mumbai it is pizza, burgers and smashed potatoes. While Lakhot dreams of water, in Mumbai where there is seemingly no dearth of anything a loft tank serves a purely functional need as a repository for the stolen money. Life in the Mumbai of Johnny Gaddaar is so anonymous that even screams and gunshots are absorbed into the everyday roar of the city.

The films are also significant for the subtlety of their casting. While Kulbhushan Kharbanda and Dharmendra, from the older generation of actors, give fine performances, as a depraved politician and an ageing crook respectively, the films belong to the new set: Abhay Deol, excellent as the thirty-something government official trying to breathe within the suffocating environment of his small life in a small town; Neil Mukesh, fresh-faced and charming as the youngest of the gang, offering hot tips on the stock market, willing the audience to believe that he never did mean to do any of the things he did. Vinay Pathak is superb as the malpua-guzzling policeman in one film and an ultra-religious card sharp in the other; and Zakir Hussain as the dangerous and flashy Shardul in garish shirts and black jacket, so slick in everything else but so oblivious to his wifes affair with Vikram.

Two of the most interesting women characters in recent Hindi cinema stand out for their fiery, physical performances: Gul Panag as the small-town wife Nimmi and Ashwini Kalsekar as the tough Mumbai entrepreneur Varsha. Both are in the beauty business, earning money for the family; they are assertive, even sharp-tongued; they are fiercely supportive partners to their husbands. Hotblooded, blunt, exasperated, they work hard to keep their families together: Nimmi in a frumpy nightie and cardigan as she watches her favourite TV serial, her face bright and absorbed, but concerned enough to ask Satyaveer why he does not go and write something; Varsha with her pedicured feet being pressed by Prakash as they sit before the TV discussing a very young, pre-Deewar Amitabh Bachchan in Parwana. Nimmi telephoning from her parents house to say sorry to her husband for leaving him and going off with their son; Varsha appearing at Vikrams flat in the middle of the night, unmade-up and in tears, desperate because her husband has not come home yet.

While Navdeep Singhs Manorama is a subtle, nuanced exploration of the dark corners of small-town life, Sriram Raghavans slick, witty caper hurtles from one close shave to another with breathtaking elegance. They are film-makers who value their cinematic heritage and fill their work with frissons of tribute and influence. One scene in Manorama has Satyaveer watching the neo-noir classic Chinatown on TV; it is the scene in which Roman Polanski himself appears in a cameo to make a cut in Jack Nicholsons nose, with the threat that next time he will feed it to the goldfish. Raghavans film, studded with references, is dedicated to Vijay Anand and James Hadley Chase. It draws a crucial plot element from the early Amitabh film Parwana and its title from a scene in Johnny Mera Naam where Dev Anand says exactly that. Also memorable is the stylish soundtrack of Johnny Gaddaar, with music by Shankar, Ehsaan and Loy, especially the title track and rapper Hard Kaurs superb Move Your Body.

As portrayals of depravity, greed and cold-bloodedness, Manorama and Johnny Gaddaar exemplify a new noirish sensibility set in contemporary India. In their different ways, they are filled with an atmosphere of unease, even menace: the insect in the chai, the tawdry hotel room, the pounding on the door, light and shadows falling on hairpieces in the beauty parlour. But while Polanskis 1974 classic set in pre-war Los Angeles ended on the darkest possible note, with the director in fact changing writer Robert Townes happier ending, both Manorama and Johnny Gaddaar have a somewhat more optimistic moral outlook. Crime ultimately does not go unpunished: Satyaveer himself conveys the death sentence in Manorama, while Johnny Gaddaar ends with the entire gang being wiped out. Not without some collateral damage, however: an innocent little girl killed after a gruesome crime, a wife and child left alone, a mother lying in hospital waiting for dementia to envelop her. Justice is served, but at a cost.

This noir mood engages with contemporary India in different ways. In the rural setting, the way to redemption is in the family Manorama ends with Satyaveer meeting his wife and son at the railway station in the pouring rain. While destiny plays its implacable role in delivering justice, the system continues to exist, claiming its price now an innocent child, now a migrant family on the roadside, evicted from land they have been tilling for generations.

In the urban underbelly, where there is plenty of money and the stakes are high, the criminals burn each other out with their greed and desperation; and as we see in the last scene of Johnny Gaddaar, also set in pouring rain, if redemption is not possible, then revenge will do. Finally, perhaps the two Indias are not so far away from each other; they might even be linked, by the sort of imaginary canal that connects one regions desperation with the others eagerness to speculate for higher and higher stakes.

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