Monday, May 02, 2005

a soufflé of music and guilt [april 28, 2005]

After catching an extract of Dance Like a Man at a reading event at Emory University over a year ago, I treated myself to a generous dose of Mahesh Dattani's plays with a purchase last December. I chose to read the plays in an order different from the chronological one in the collection and was rewarded with a visible sense of improvement in the audacity and bite of the material. News of filmic adaptations of his work have, hence, been of even more interest to me. The initial offerings seem to be more original material than adaptations. The only adaptations I know of are Dance Like a Man (directed by Pamela Rooks; won the National Award for the best feature film in English: all of which means nothing, really) and Mango Soufflé, and all I know about the latter is that the DVD exists. The other filmic exercise that he had writing credit on, Ek Alag Mausam, was an unfortunate disappointment. And now, after catching Morning Raaga, I only hope Mahesh Dattani reconsiders his plunge into film direction. Adapting plays for the big screen has always been a challenging task, and Morning Raaga does not enjoy much success. Devices associated with the mechanics of filmmaking (editing, photography, background score) threaten to destroy the firmament of a familiar set of narrative ideas. Having music as a backdrop while tackling guilt and the need to find a place for oneself in this world offers potential. Dattani, unfortunately, doesn't exercise his options well. The dialogue mixes English and the vernacular, but a lot of what is said is uneven, unfinished, ill-at-ease and pretty much a bumpy ride. The film also can't seem to make up its mind about its tone, eventually ending up as an unsatisfying (often confused) mix. All epiphanies seem trite, all resolutions clichéd, and all complexities rendered specious. The only merit the background score (which continues to live up to the tradition of trying to become a "foreground" score) achieves comes in a brief moment during abhinay's first boat ride. The singing voices are extremely talented and it's a pity that nobody on screen (except Ranjani Ramakrishnan who plays vashNavii {may 03, 2005: see addendum at the end of this post}) does justice in lip-synching for carnatic music. Shabana Azmi does a good job with her accent, but that merit threatens to go unnoticed as she struggles with a part that deserved more attention from the writing department. Perizaad continues to irritate me, and Prakash Rao (no surprise about the choice; he's the son of the producer) playing Abhinay seems perpetually sad with one expression to fit all emotions. Lillete Dubey tackles her part with gumption, but she rarely gets to take it beyond the frivolity that occupies a majority of her on-screen time. Nasser offers as much support as he can, as does the buffalo playing the buffalo named annapuurNaa.

Things don't bode well on the technical front. The editing is dismal, there seems to have been a complete lack of vision as far as camera angles and camerawork was concerned (was D/P Rajeev Menon having a bad day?), the lighting is egregious (note the general irritating wash of light in several scenes).

Oh yes, one more thing. There is no way someone can pick up carnatic music and expound profoundly in so short a span of time as seen in the film. That aspect alone trivializes the discipline and virtually spells doom for the film's intent.

If someone knows the meaning of the following set of strings that comprise a recurring graphic adorning the main menu of the DVD, please drop me a line: a meeting of worlds; rhythms; embellishments; sanskrit, literally; musical tone, colo[u]r; awaken the Gods.

An aspect ratio of 2.35:1 meant that I kept seeing plump squashed versions of everything on screen. Either this was a mistake at the drawing board or the DVD people took 16:9 and twisted it. Or the Indian store probably screwed up the aspect ratio while making a VHS copy ... yet again!!

{may 03, 2005}: Addendum: Checked my copy of the soundtrack CD on a whim and -- sure enough -- the name "Ranjani Ramakrishna(n)" shows up on the credits. Some googling got me more information from a review by spacejunk and comments accompanying another review by satishkl. Turns out RR is a violinist/vocalist who , in addition to performing on the album, also featured on screen as vaishNavii and a music coach for Shabana Azmi and Perizaad Zorabian. There are a few grey areas on the names though (at least for me): are the "Gayathri" credited on the album and Gayatri Iyer (maar gayo re, haa.N mai.nne chhuukar dekhaa hai) the same person? Also, aside from Bombay Jayashree, no other names ring immediate bells, so notes from people in the know are most welcome. Obviously, I think the soundtrack was the best part of this enterprise!

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