Sunday, 20 June 2010

Raavan: A Review and A Comment...

I’m not particularly keen on BBC Breakfast and do my best to stay away from Bill Turnbull and those overzealous journalists reporting on things like the re-appearance of obscure squirrel species in Wales. Last week however, the drab program was lit up by the arrival of Aishwarya Rai and her fidgety husband Abhishek Bachchan, promoting their new movie ‘Raavan’. Their appearance follows the publicity blitz which surrounded ‘Kites’ a few weeks ago when Hrithik Roshan waltzed from breakfast couch to breakfast couch, making all the weather girls swoon.

It’s all supposed to be part of Bollywood’s new ‘global’ attitude. Whilst ‘Kites’ premiered in New York, ‘Raavan’ held its lavish do at London’s storied Southbank, complete with an appearance by Shah Rukh Khan, hundreds of delirious fans, live TV coverage and erm…a former Big Brother contestant.

And of course, like ‘Kites’, ‘Raavan’ boasts a galaxy of stars pooling their talents; aside from Abhishek and Aishwarya, the film’s third lead is played by Vikram Kennedy, one of the biggest stars in South India; the film’s directed by Mani Ratnam, and the music has been composed by the increasingly ubiquitous maestro A R Rahman.

‘Raavan’ is a loose adaptation of the ancient Indian epic “Ramayana” and tells the story of ‘Beera’, played by Abhishek Bachchan. He’s a Robin Hood figure to some, a bloodthirsty brigand to others and rules the roost in a remote part of Central India. After his (adopted) sister is arrested and abused by local police, Beera goes on the rampage, targeting police officers and generally getting up to a lot of mischief. The hapless local police enlist the help of the tough and righteous inspector ‘Dev’ (Vikram) to help bring Beera to book. But even before Dev has finished giving the usual pep talk to his troops, his wife Raghini (Rai) is abducted by Beera. The film follows Beera and his fellow pirates of the rain forests as they play hide and seek with the frantic Dev and his troops.

Visually Stunning and a Pulsating Score…
If there’s one thing that Mani Ratnam does consistently well it is showcasing the breathtaking beauty of India in all its grandeur and he certainly doesn’t disappoint here. ‘Raavan’ feels like an extended commercial for the Indian Tourism Development Board. The locations are astonishingly beautiful and the director astutely captures the colour, vibrancy and translucence of the land that evokes wonder and dread in equal measure.

Adding to the striking visuals is A R Rahman’s phenomenal soundtrack. Ratnam’s films seem to bring out the best in Rahman and his effort here puts ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ firmly in the shade. The pulsating score fuses a vast array of musical influences from African drum beats, Indian folk songs and Sufi rhythms to beastly screams and synth-pop. It’s mesmerizing, moody, uplifting and visceral all at once, taking you to the very edge of sensory overload without quite tipping you over. It’s also one of the few things that helps lift the film.

The other is Abhishek Bachchan. As the villain ‘Raavan’, the junior Bachchan is largely convincing, managing to capture the rabid, sadistic anger of the antagonist, swaggering about callous and crass, and evoking absolute fear and loyalty. The problem is his character is so thinly drawn and Abhishek’s portrayal is inconsistent, especially towards the end of the piece when you’re left questioning whether he’s a suicidal maniac or a maniacal softie.

At least Bachchan can act, which is more than can be said for his real-life wife Aishwarya. She may still confidently lay claim to the title of World’s Most Beautiful Woman but wistfully staring into the distance with those knee-shakingly beautiful eyes is just not enough. As a thespian she is so ersatz that it’s embarrassing at times. While she tries to make a fist of displaying fiery defiance as Raghini, she’s so prone to overacting that even a director of Ratnam’s experience is unable to rein her in. Her role provoked even more apathy because of an absolute lack of chemistry between her and Vikram; in the few scenes that they are together the two are wooden and unconvincing. To her credit, this is perhaps her most physical role, clambering up slippery hills, plunging through trees and appearing constantly bruised and battered. She also spends so much time in the rain that I’m surprised she didn’t end up with the consumption.

Vikram’s obviously a massive star in South India and he plays to type, looking exceptionally good in uniform and with just enough intensity to pass muster. The supporting cast are a lot better, including the always funny Govinda as a Forestry Officer (who is supposed to represent Hanuman) and Ravi Kishan, playing Beera’s febrile younger brother.

Too many things…
The film’s biggest disappointment is Mani Ratnam’s direction which is erratic and unresolved. Whilst it might seem a fresh idea to re-imagine an epic like Ramayana, Ratnam doesn’t seem to know which direction he wants to take it. He wants the film to be too many things at once; an epic piece of cinema to please the senses, a social critique, an unconvincing love story that elicits indifference as opposed to empathy but none of these things seem to work. His twisted mind does come through once in a while but the script is lacklustre, and the lead actors spend too much time ponderously going through the motions. ‘Raavan’ may be visually stunning, but Ratnam has failed to marry a compelling human story to the striking imagery for the film to be truly entertaining.

The ingredients were there, the resources and the acting and producing talent. But ultimately they have conspired to make a complete hash of it; the bizarre ending felt like Aishwarya Rai agreeing to go out for dinner with me only to cancel at the last minute owing to road closures in Mayfair.

International Sensibilities
If Bollywood’s aim is to appeal to a global audience, the stories need to be far more compelling and authentic than this. Producers need be able to attract the attention of those who have been exposed to global cinema, global sensibilities and who want a bit more than mere escapism. The new India is far more subtle and nuanced and cynical even. Bollywood needs to move with the times and take those traits into account if they are to be critically and commercial successful inside and outside India.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

The Fabulous Mr Bedi...

Kabir Bedi has an unhurried gait, a contended demeanour as he strolls through London’s Hyde Park; the languidness perhaps shaped by a lifetime of extraordinary experiences and fame that extends from his native Punjab to Latin America. When he happens upon Speaker’s Corner he stops, contemplating for a moment before getting up on to a platform and making an impassioned plea. His magnificent baritone voice carries across the park, people gather, rapt, as Bedi decries the atrocities taking place in Tibet and Burma while the world mourns oil-splattered wildlife in the Gulf of Mexico. The crowd mill around, drawn to his magnetic personality. The entire world seems to be his stage.

Later the same evening we meet at the cold, minimalist Cumberland Hotel for an extended chat, a few days before the London premier of his new movie ‘Kites’. The frosty, unwelcoming design of the setting is at odds with the old world charm and grace that Bedi exudes. The first thing that’s apparent is his imposing stature; tall, barrel-chested with shoulders like the famed Murcielago. Age has not been unkind and those famous eyes are as captivating as ever. And as he orders drinks in that measured baritone, the ladies swoon and the men grind their teeth to dust. There’s no entourage, no complaints at the fold of the napkin or the weather; he is exceedingly polite, warm and eager to chat.

It’s been a busy month for perhaps the most prolific actor in Bollywood. He has just visited Scotland, accompanying the Dalai Lama to a conference and is back in London – a city he calls the most perfect in the world. In London he is promoting ‘Kites’, the $30m Rakesh Roshan blockbuster in which Bedi puts in a devilish turn as a rich and domineering casino owner trying to scupper the romance between the improbable character played by Hrithik Roshan and his lover. It’s fitting that Bedi – one of a handful of actors who has successfully bridged East and West – has been cast in a production aimed at globalizing Indian Cinema.

While ‘Kites’ is impressive as a showcase of what Bollywood is capable of, as a cinematic experience, it is distinctly average. In fact, Kabir Bedi is one of two highlights (the other being the fantastically flexible Hrithik Roshan) of the film and reaffirms Bedi’s status as the most underappreciated Bollywood actor of his generation.

A vast array of influences…
Born on 16th January 1946 in pre-Partition Lahore, Bedi grew up in an invigorating environment with a colourful array of influences. His father Baba Pyare Lal Bedi – a direct descendent of the Sikh spiritual leader Guru Nanak – was an Oxford graduate, author and Marxist who was forced, as a student, to flee Germany as Hitler swept to power. Kabir’s mother Freda was from Derbyshire who first met Lal Bedi at Oxford. After marriage, Pyare Lal and Freda moved to India in the 1930’s, when Freda became a follower of Mahatma Gandhi and was arrested several times along with her children for agitating against the British. Later in life she converted to Buddhism, dedicating herself to social welfare activities. In the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, Freda was entrusted by Prime Minister Nehru with ensuring the welfare of Tibetan refugees fleeing to Dharamsala following the Dalai Lama. His parent’s pursuits meant the Kabir household was forever frequented by activists, artists, writers, poets, thinkers, revolutionaries and spiritualists of every hue.

After attending the Christian Sherwood College in Nainital, Kabir Bedi travelled to Delhi to study History at St Stephen’s College, a satellite of the University of Delhi. After university, Bedi travelled to Bombay to learn film-making spending 5 years producing and directing commercials for Lintas and Ogilvy and Mather, among others. He also found work performing in the city’s thriving theatre industry. In 1971, at the age of 25, he made his first impact with the play ‘Tughlaq’, playing a madcap, visionary pre-Mughal king. The drama was a huge hit in Bombay and led to producers falling over themselves to cast the young star in their productions. That same year also saw Bedi play a minor role in ‘Hulchul’ before embarking on a 5-year period in which he made no less than 12 movies whilst also performing on stage.

The Malayan Tiger
In 1976 came his big break, when an Italian production company came to Bombay looking for an actor to cast in Sandokan, a TV series based on a fictional 19th century pirate. “I was very young and probably impressionable and when I look back now I can appreciate that I signed up a lot of bad films during that initial phase in Bollywood. Another problem was while I could speak Punjabi, my Hindi was terrible. So when Sandokan came along I jumped at the opportunity. It seemed like an interesting story and an epic love story. It was definitely one of those fortunate accidents of history.”

While the series only spanned 6 episodes, Bedi’s turn as the strapping, smouldering Malayan brigand fighting Dutch and British rule in the Far East won him acclaim and an almost religious following. The show was not widely shown in the English speaking world primarily due the fact Sandokan spent his days kicking British colonial posteriors. However, in continental Europe, Africa, South America and the Far East, the series became a phenomenon. Repeats are shown to this day and in Italy, Bedi’s fame endures to this day, with the actor making guest appearances in soaps and featuring in chat shows and newspaper columns.

Paving the Way…
Sandokan also opened doors in the West for the tall and handsome actor with the green eyes, turning him into one of the world’s first travelling performers. There followed roles in such notable productions as The Thief of Baghdad and the villain Gobinda in the Roger Moore bond romp “Octupussy”. Bedi also found work with unprecedented regularity – unprecedented at least for an Indian actor – during a period in the 1980’s and 1990’s when he amassed an unmatched body of work, appearing in General Hospital, Dynasty, Highlander, Magnum P.I., and The Bold and the Beautiful among others. In between he also returned to Bollywood working in everything from the twisted Khoon Bhari Maang to the soppy The Maharaja’s Daughter. Perhaps most significantly, Bedi enabled Indian actors enter Hollywood’s conscience, paving the way for the likes of Naveen Andrews, Kal Penn and Sendhil Ramamurthy. “I think Anil Kapoor’s recent role in 24 was significant”, Bedi says. “Things have changed over the past decades for Indian actors. There are more possibilities today. It sure took a lot of lobbying from the time I was there; to tell producers that you cannot write roles for Indians and then give them to lily-white Americans. They wouldn’t dare do that to black actors. That’s what I fought against for years. In spite of the regular work, I was left constantly asking, ‘why is it when I audition for a role the room is filled with white actors and brown actors. But the minute you audition for a black role there are only black actors in the room?’”

The diverse body of work is also testament to Bedi’s creative appetite and versatility as an actor – whether it is switching from Hindi to English to Italian (which he speaks fluently), or whether he’s playing a Moroccan prince in the Bold and the Beautiful or an Eastern bloc spy in Magnum PI. That versatility also made him into a successful travelling actor. “In spite of finding regular work, I could never find a role that would define me because so little was written for Indian actors. I realized that there’ll be work for as long as you in LA but there won’t be any truly significant roles written for you. That’s why I left Hollywood and made my way back to Europe.”

His success as Sandokan stood Bedi in good stead however, with Italian producers casting him in such hit TV shows as “Vivere” and “Un medico in Famiglia”. In London Bedi also returned to his first love as an actor, appearing in the West End production of “The Far Pavilions”. The jump to Bombay was also made easier with Bedi cast in such major productions as “Main Hoo Naa” and “Bewafaa”.

Incredible Experiences...
His prolific acting career apart, Bedi is also well known for his personal life, one replete with drama, hedonism, unbridled love and tragedy. His first wife Protima was a model, dancer and fearless feminist who regularly rustled feathers in supposedly conservative Bombay society. She was renowned for her insatiable love of life, once famously streaking along Bombay’s Juhu beach in broad daylight. Bedi and Protima eloped in 1969 much to the chagrin of her family, enjoying a famously open marriage which bore two children – Pooja, who went on to forge a successful career in Bollywood, and Siddarth. In the 1970’s, as the marriage began failing, Kabir began seeing Parveen Babi, another sultry actress and sex symbol. Bedi and Parveen however never married. It was an extraordinarily bohemian and artistic time for the young and successful actor.

After the short lived affair with Babi, Kabir married British fashion designer Susan Humphreys in 1979, bearing a son – Adam Bedi – a ravenously striking product of East and West who became a successful, international model. After his second marriage ended in divorce, Bedi married Nikki Moolgaoker, the fresh-faced Anglo Indian TV and radio presenter better known as Nikki Bedi. That marriage too ended in divorce in 2002. “They were all incredible people”, Bedi says with a hint of melancholy. Whilst the strait-laced society in which Bedi found himself may see his personal life as a series of failures, in his mind, it is anything but. “I am aware that people think I’ve been various things in love, unlucky, unfortunate and a general failure, but I wouldn’t replace the time I’ve had with all of these fantastic women. They were so different from each other and they enriched my life and made me what I am today. Regrets? Absolutely none.”

Whilst he has had his fair share of desirable females and mind-enhancing experiences, Bedi’s also had his share of tragedy; his son Siddarth committed suicide in Los Angeles in 1997 after being diagnosed with Schizophrenia. “He had made attempts on his life and we had alerted the suicide squads in LA. He was suffering. He was such a handsome boy but had lost a lot of weight. I think he was very brave, he chose to go because he couldn't handle the pain and agony of living life in a fog. When Siddharth's friends came to his funeral, I felt it could have been any one of them. God chose my son. Really, there's no explanation for schizophrenia.” Two years after Siddarth’s death, a devastated Protima passed away as well.

Outwardly at least, the sanguinity on display at the Cumberland Hotel in London suggests that he finally feels a deep contentment with his life and his achievements. Bedi confesses that it is partly due to the new love in his life; Praveen Dusanj, a vivacious, London-based Social Researcher who seems to combine an irresistible nonchalance with a steadiness that seems to have disarmed and grounded Kabir Bedi. Whilst the two have been together for several years, there’s no rush – particularly on Praveen’s part – to plunge headlong into anything. “I think we have a very wonderful relationship”, Bedi says with a sparkle. “I hope it lasts forever; what form it will take we will have to wait and see”, he adds laughing. “I’ve asked her to marry me but she’s asked me to make absolutely sure because I’ve made the decision before.”

His passionate campaigning for Tibet and Burma has also given added meaning to his life. “For many years of my life I never took up any causes because I looked at my family who had given so much to society but had nothing to show for it in the end. I found that a bit futile. I think I needed to set my life in order first! It’s only in the last 10 years or so that I have taken up campaigning.”

Burma in particular has profound resonance for Bedi. “I spent a lot of time in Burma as a child, because of my mother’s Buddhist connections. I was actually ordained as a young monk in Burma so I know the country very well; when it was a democratic country, a happy country. There is a certain serenity that I recall about Burma, a beauty that has disappeared since the military took over and the country became one large repressed society.”

Bedi had similar experiences with Tibet, working with the emotionally and physically broken refugees streaming into India in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. The young Bedi followed his mother around Dharamsala as she set up schools and taught English to Lamas who would then go on to travel to the West to campaign against Chinese rule in Tibet. “Today we are so conditioned by TV that if cameras are not in a particular place, a particular situation would not enter people’s conscience. Because TV crews are not there in Tibet and Burma we tend to forget the enormous injustices that happen in those countries. In the case of Tibet a whole culture is being annihilated.”

But while the failure of Western media to highlight the plight of the Burmese and Tibetan people certainly irks, he concedes the failure of the Indian media to shed light on what is happening on its doorstep is even more tragic. “In the first instance, I think the media in India are performing an extraordinary job in that in the absence of a quick moving judiciary the media are the only point of accountability. However they have failed when it comes to dealing with issues that affect us intimately in our neighbourhood. The coverage of these countries, even Pakistan, is highly limited. We get more news on what happens on Obama’s travels than China even. In that sense, the Indian media have failed.”

As ambassador for the Burma campaign UK, Bedi has injected new life into a dogged and movement which calls for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi; the only Nobel Peace Prize winner to remain imprisoned. Bedi’s passion suggests a new phase has begun; a new incarnation of a man renowned for reinventing himself again and again. While his campaigning continues there is also talk of writing and directing for the theatre and the big screen.

Whatever form his creations will take, one thing is for certain; he certainly won’t be found wanting for inspiration.

- Poonam Joshi and Vijitha Alles

Friday, 4 June 2010

IIFA Awards 2010 - To be there...or not to be there...

Aaaah...what a lovely picture. The distinguished Mr Bachchan, head tilted, slightly stooped in deference. The slinky, sexy Jacqueline Fernandez (whose skin has the consistency of triple cream mixed with Fireweed honey), traditional Jasmine in her hair, dazzling in up-country Sri Lankan sari, greeting the Sri Lankan President. Picture was taken last month as Bachchan, the ambassador of the International Indian Film Academy Awards, unveiled Colombo as the venue for this year’s IIFA Awards, to be held this weekend.

The Island’s resplendent beauty was - unsurprisingly - a deciding a factor in the country being chosen to host the 2010 edition of the popular awards; the other shortlisted locations were Cape Town, Seoul, Sydney and Abu Dhabi. When he visited Sri Lanka in 1890, Mark Twain is alleged to have exclaimed, “Dear me! It is beautiful; all harmonious, all in perfect taste!”

It's a massive coup for the organizers, the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Board and will doubtless help put right the country's battered image, coming just a year after the end of one of the bloodiest and longest running Civil Wars in history.

In the run up to the event however, some activists and commentators - in South India and even in faraway East London - have stepped up calls for a boycott of the festival by Bollywood; saying it is inappropriate for the likes of Bachchan, numerous Khans, Dutts and Shetty's to be fraternizing with a government responsible for widespread repression of the media and the imposition of a ‘moral code’ on filmmakers. Others have even called for a total boycott of the awards ceremony (and Sri Lanka as a whole) given the treatment meted out to journalists, members of the opposition and anyone who criticizes the president’s choice of cufflinks, the president's brother's interview etiquette or the president's son's lack of decorum.

Journalists and ordinary Tamils in London are up in arms, saying it is hypocritical (not to mention insensitive) to be getting up in your most glamorous outfit and gyrating to Sonu Nigam when thousands of people continue to suffer, gyrating their way through barbed-wire enclosed internment camps.

Idealism is all well and good in our cosy little (Western) corner of the world where freedoms abound but Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans have suffered enough for 30 years. It is true that the end of the Civil War has brought with it a host of new problems. It is also true thousands still languish in squalid camps as ‘Internally Displaced Persons’ in a country the size of Southeast England.

However, boycotting the awards ceremony would only impose further torment on the people of Sri Lanka and what’s the point in that? The European Union recently withdrew trade concessions for Sri Lanka’s apparel industry, citing the government’s human rights record. Who will ultimately suffer due this decision? The 2.5 million workers – Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims – who rely on an industry that supplies everything from Victoria’s Secret lingerie to Marks and Spencer shirts, that’s who.

Remember the sanctions on Iraq in the 1990’s? While the scale and consequences may differ, Sri Lanka is in a similar situation. The people suffer while governments posture.

A boycott of the event would also be a slap in the face for the army of employees of the Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Board who have worked tirelessly to bring IIFA to Colombo. It’s essentially a private organization staffed by some of the brightest marketers and communicators in Sri Lanka; people tasked with promoting a country that has long been viewed as a scarred paradise. They are people from various backgrounds – Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims and Burghers – who all share a deep affection for this tiny island of ours. It’s a love that drives them to promote Sri Lanka in spite of the bad image, in spite of all the calamities – natural and man-made – in spite of tight budgets. And it’s a job they’ve done staggeringly well, whether it is inside Sri Lanka or outside.

The ceremony itself will result in a massive increase in the number of visitors to the country this year. Boycotting IIFA will therefore be a body blow to the thousands of people – again Tamil, Sinhala, Muslim – who work in the tourism industry; from the major hotel chains to the little guest houses, from the owner of the swanky restaurant to the handicraft seller on the beach.

The choice between good and evil has long been an unattainable luxury for Sri Lankans whose lot has instead been about choosing the least malevolent from a multitude of evils. The country and its people sorely need the opportunity to shine and the IIFA awards ceremony is as good an opportunity as there ever will be.

Those journalists and visitors who have travelled to Sri Lanka should, by all means shed light on the negatives; it will hopefully cajole the powers that be (outside and inside Sri Lanka) to change tack.

But also write about how the warmth of the sun envelopes you; how the people make you feel at home; write about the food and the colour and vibrancy. Write about how the astonishing beauty and vibe of this little place transports you. Because ultimately it will only help the people of Sri Lanka; revitalize them and give them hope.

And then be thankful for the choices we have.

- Vijitha Alles