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Friday, Dec 28, 2001

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Memorable flicks that made it big

As the year draws to a close, GOWRI RAMNARAYAN touches upon some of the celluloid successes from the world over.

A heady mix of play and patriotism in true Mumbai fashion... "Lagaan".

IMPORTANT FILMS of 2001? Any child will shout``Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone". Critics may cavil at director Chris Columbus' blind translation of text to screen. The literal nature hasn't bothered the sitting-on-dge, unblinking, breathless audiences. In fact, they would have been outraged by the least change in Rowling's book, a memorised text for viewers of all ages. A friend emails from the U.S that the queues for the just released ``Fellowship of the Rings'' are amazing. Based on the first of J.R.R. Tolkien's mind-boggling three part saga of hobbits, elves, dwarves, sorcerers and men, it has viewers in thrall with technological razzmatazz for epic sweeps of scene and action. This biggest mid-week opener in history took 18.2 million dollars on day one in the U.S, with South Africa setting up a single day record. Connoisseurs find this adaptation far more cinematic than the Potter product.

Earlier in the year, ``Shrek", that miracle of the multi-layered, computerised fairytale, was good money-grossing fun, now also in a two-disc DVD with...oops,``11 hours of bonus features" of interactive games and what not. Explosively funny ``Monsters Inc." is another chartbusting animated film where monsters inhabiting an invisible parallel universe, appearing only to capture childrens' screams for their Scare Factory, let a little girl into their world by mistake.

So can we call 2001 the year of children's extravaganzas?

Other blockbusters include poor sequels like leap-n-bawl ``Planet of the Apes", slam-wham "Rush Hour II", screech-n-smooch "American Pie II", dino-stuffed ``Jurassic Park III", all designed for jejune tastes. Horror reigned supreme ("The Mummy Returns" and "Pearl Harbour" topping the chart). Don't forget screwball comedy ``America's Sweethearts", with Julia Roberts and Catherine Zeta-Jones in a bathtub scene for purely adolescent titillation. Roberts managed to steal hearts as Cinderella plus Ugly Duckling turned Swan. Tom Cruise got disfigured to play Cinderella backwards, with ex-girlfriend doing the wicked stepmother in "Vanilla Sky", a huge success this December.

Fairytales took other shapes, whimsical as in "Chocolat" where beautiful Juliette Binoche's sweetshop dispenses bon bons with a Mayan elixir, shaking the local populace out of repressions into revelry, much to the dismay of the reactionaries.

"Amelie", a huge box office hit, is all about lovely Audrey Tautou's syrupy do-goodishness in feel-good Paris. "Moulin Rouge" best described as a Bollywood film made in Hollywood, is Nicole Kidman's magical brew, and Baz Luhrmann's "Boxbuster", too intoxicating for analysis.

The world knows Mandarin and Cantonese as the native lingos of action thrillers, but the West saw burning intensities in "Yi Yi" (Dir: Edward Yang) with revealing portraits of a Taiwanese family, unsettled by modern ethics in business, and in life, home truths for the Orient and Occident. Equally stiletto-sharp was "In the Mood for Love" (Dir: Wang Kar Wai) about Shanghai refugees in Hong Kong where stay-at-home spouses realise that their frequently touring spouses are having an affair with each other. Expectedly, the most talked about films are from Iran.

"Vanilla Sky"... arecent success that has Tom Cruise playing Cinderella backwards.

Celebrated film-makers Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Majid Majidi focussed on the Subject of the Year; what else but Afghanistan? While ``Kandahar'' is the dramatic journey of a beautiful Canada-based Afghan woman into the mountain-desertscapes in search of the handicapped sister left behind, "Baran" looks obliquely at the Afghan war through the love story of lost waifs. Maestro Abbas Kiarostami came up with "And Life Goes On", where he documents a car drive through the earthquake ravaged region, watching the struggle to survive overcoming tragic grief. The film almost creates a universal myth of hope springing through disaster and displacement.

Socio-political issues continue to grab festival audiences' (if not the general filmgoer's) attention, especially with hitherto unheard of voices, races and places. But few films had that haunting simplicity distilled from profound life experience. "Maids" (Dir: Fernando Meirelles), a multi-award winner from Brazil, found a perky, original montage format to tell the stories of its distinctly drawn characters, all domestic workers in highrises in Sao Paolo. If its structure simulates the oral tradition of the working class, the film has the sprightliness, wit and snide humour of folk tales.

A lavish production tackled the same issue. The London Festival premiered "Gosford Park", a brilliantly orchestrated opening gala by Robert Altman. A sassy mix of classics (Renoir's "The Rules of the Game" and Agatha Christie) its multiple plot lines zigzag through two levels of existence in the 1930s — of aristocrats at a shooting party in an English mansion, and servants below stairs. A glittering ensemble cast (Maggie Smith, Alan Bates, Derek Jacobi, Charles Dance, Christine Scott-Thomas, Helen Mirren, Richard Wilby) animates the gallery.

Palme D'Or winner at the world's best known festival, Nanni Moretti's "The Son's Room" depicts the eternal human condition of grief. Death of the son in a freak accident shatters the family. The mother is inconsolable, the sister fails in school, the father, a psychoanalyst is unable to work. The film is a masterpeice in understatement with a detailing that is as sharp as it is sensitive.

At the international film festivals , in Oslo, Valladolid (Spain) and London, trends presaged the wane of purely "artistic" films, and that dogged attitude of "I make my film for myself", of the auteur.

Young talent is determined to seize its audience. Intelligent cineaste that he is, today's film-maker tries to mesh art and entertainment for his own brand of "superior spice". Take "Mostly Martha", a German version of "Eat-Drink-Man-Woman"ish sweet-n-sour comedy. Celebrated young chef Martha's life round the kitchen table is rudely upset when she takes custody of her dead sister's child. A smash hit from Italy "The Last Kiss", is a clever montage of adultery, friendship, family ties and romance. This blend of art and commerce sets up its own confusions. Alfonso Cuaron, maker of "And Your Mother Too" (Mexico) a competitor, along with "Monsoon Wedding", for the Golden Globe, apologised for its critical success and box office success in successive breaths at the Question Hour after its London festival screening!

In India, the same "kala-masala" mix gave us our film of the year, now India's official entry for the Oscars. So what if "Lagaan" did not gross as much as``Hum Apke Hain Kaun''and "Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge"?

"Monsters Inc."... animation that was a chartbuster.

It had the box office wreathed in smiles all the same, and did Bollywood proud with a heady mix of cricket and patriotism in true blue Mumbai "ishtyle". It entertained every second of the way while promoting a sense of values — NOT regression in the name of Indian tradition as is often the case. Aamir Khan excelled himself without dominating the show. You had ensemble acting of the most sporting kind. A.R.Rahman's tunes had a special feel that may prove more durable than much else of his output. The costuming deserves special mention for its tastefulness, choice of colour and overall design. In contrast, "Gadar'' had to be satisfied (!) with mere (!) box office success. Sadly, Santosh Sivan's "Asoka" did not do for him and Shahrukh Khan what "Lagaan" did for Ashutosh Gowarikar and Aamir Khan. The film fared better with critics abroad than in India.

Farhan Akhtar's "Dil Chahta Hai" was an important feature of 2001. Made by a young mind and with vibrant energy, and lots of bonhomie ad-libbing by the three protagonists, the film projects effervescence without crassness. Aamir Khan gives a terrific performance; Saif Ali Khan gets new lease through comedy; and Akshaye Khanna steals the show with depth, tenderness and elan in a remarkable characterisation. His falling in love with the older Dimple Khanna is lyrical, credible and completely alien to Bollywood formula. Yet the director has made it a smooth fit, adding texture to his vision. Finally, star-studded "Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham" is the end-of-the-year bonanza for Bollywood. In the first World, its takings surpass all previous records. Ranked third after ``Harry Potter'' and ``The 51st State'' in the U.K Top Ten list, with the biggest opening of any Bollywood film in North America, the film had Loews Theatre in Times Square, Manhattan, fitting in extra chairs to accommodate the Saturday crowds. The year 2001 has also been a year for Indian films setting up new benchmarks and attracting in the West less condescending, more respectful critical notice. "Lagaan" won the Best Audience Prize at Locarno and is slated for the Sundance Festival. ``Monsoon Wedding'' is the most sought after entry for film festivals the world over. I saw that it was the grand finale for Oslo, a delight in London, while Valladolid was dismayed to have missed it. Like ``Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham'' and "Asoka", it has been more feted abroad than in India. True, Mira Nair is no Satyajit Ray, but her triumph in Venice points to new goals for Indian cinema.

From this end...

DIVERSE STORIES with big and not so big heroes made a mark on the Tamil film scene this year. "Citizen" had popular star Ajit donning nine different characters — impersonations, all right, but ones that went down well with the audience. Maniratnam's assistant Azhagamperumal made his debut as director with the Madhavan-Jyotika starrer, "Dumm.. Dumm.. Dumm". The refreshing lead pair and scintillating music were some of the film's assets. Yet another much-hyped film of the year was "Aalavandhaan" ("Abhay" in Hindi) that saw Kamal Hassan in a dual role. A film that can be termed a milestone in Indian cinema for its sheer technological brilliance.

Director Bala's "Nandha" had created a lot of expectation because Bala's earlier film "Sethu" was a distinctly different attempt that was a money spinner too. Surya played "Nandha" and acquitted himself quite well. Vikram who had made an impact with his spell-binding performance in "Sethu" arrived again with a very different theme in "Dhil" (directed by Dharani) and more recently in "Kaasi" — a remake of the Malayalam hit "Vaasanthiyum, Lakshmiyum Pinne Gnanum". Cheran, who is adept at capturing the village scenario in its most vibrant form, made "Pandavar Bhoomi" with not too well known faces. The theme was so well handled that it made an impact on the classes and masses alike. On the other hand if "Minnalae" kept the box office tingling, it was also because of the contribution of Madhavan and the music of Harris Jeyaraj (that the magic was not repeated in the Hindi version, again with Madhavan, is another story). "Anandham", a well- presented family drama directed by Lingusamy, who made a debut with the film, brought Mammootty's histrionic potential to the fore yet again.

In the parallel cinema mode came the poignant and heart-rending tale of "Kutty", directed by Janaki Viswanathan — the sad tale of a small, vulnerable village girl. Sensitive touches were also evident in "Kaatrukkenna Vaeli", that dealt with the psyche of the militants.

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