Saturday, September 14, 2013

John Day review: Naseeruddin Shah, Randeep Hooda keep the film afloat

A teenaged couple arrive in a wooded estate somewhere outside Bombay. There seems to be no-one else around. They sit around in a bamboo hut, strumming a guitar and talking. Then they go for a swim in the lake. The girl swims for some time, then says she's tired and returns to the room for a shower. Before she takes off her wet T-shirt, she closes the bamboo door, and we see no more of her. Cut to a cemetery, where a priest intones gravely from the Bible, and a middle-aged man and his wife bite back tears as they surrender their young daughter's body to the earth. When the film picks up next, it is two years later. The husband and wife are still grieving for their daughter. The wife is still punishing herself for having let the daughter go away that weekend, the husband is still trying to console her. He accepts an old friend's invitation to a party, and leaves for work, affectionately telling his wife to wear a nice dress for the evening — "red colour or something". She smiles wanly. Life is not the same, but they might just begin to move on. But within the next few minutes, everything has changed. Ahishor Solomon's directorial debut shows promise, managing to establish an atmosphere of unmitigated menace in a tightly-constructed film shorn of songs, fillers or 'light' moments. Solomon's previous experience includes working as assistant director on the Ram Gopal Varma production Darna Zaroori Hai (2006) and Bhatt camp outings like Rog (2005) and Paap (2003), but John Day, produced by the people who produced Wednesday, is a step up from these: grittier, and less exploitative — the camera doesn't linger on the young woman as she strips for a shower. Courtesy: Facebook The film clearly draws its plot and central characters from a 2002 Spanish thriller called La Caja 507 (Box 507) – a bank manager with a daughter who died, a bank robbery years later, documents that reveal that the girl's death was part of a much larger plot, and a cat and mouse game between the bank manager and a renegade cop. There is nothing wrong with reworking an existing film, especially if one is able to successfully adapt it to a wholly new cultural context — but one dearly wishes Solomon and his producers would start by acknowledging their sources. Their refusal to do so seems particularly silly because it is not the plot or the characters that are the strengths of this film. The plot feels unnecessarily convoluted, while the characters don't seem complex enough. When there is a backstory, it's a disappointingly pat one-liner: a child abuse narrative as explanation for someone's extreme violence, a daughter stifling her dreams to live her father's, another daughter holding on to her mother's dreams. What keeps John Day afloat, to the extent that it does stay above water, is well-chosen atmospheric locales, pacy editing, some of the dialogue (by Solomon and Kartik Krishnan) and most of the performances. Naseeruddin Shah, as the title character, puts in a more complex, non-phoned-in performance than most directors have managed to extract from him in the last couple of years. Channelling his enraged Everyman for the second time after A Wednesday, Shah keeps his aspiring footballer turned bank manager turned middle class avenger from ever hitting a false note. Randeep Hooda, as a violent cop-in-disgrace, summons up inner reserves of brutality with chilling conviction. Shernaz Patel is characteristically effective as the dead girl's distraught mother, and Elena Kazan, soon to appear in a larger role in Prague, makes the best of a small, rather cliched role as Hooda's needy, alcoholic girlfriend. Makarand Deshpande in a small appearance as a drunk informant is thankfully kept in check, not allowed to descend into his usual excesses. Sharat Saxena as uber-villain Sikandar Hayaat Khan affects a deep-voiced gravitas that hides a mysterious self-flagellatory inner self. Vipin Sharma is impressive as a corrupt cop who's Hooda's accomplice, and their power-laden interactions give the film some good lines: "Jaldi kar, tu tankhwaah pe nahi, ghoos pe kaam kar raha hai". Prakash Kutty's camerawork manages to evoke a degree of fear while staying subtle, capturing the the cavernous depths of deserted subways and empty garages, the autumnal melancholy of a cemetery, or the alternating shadows and tawdry lights of a pre-Christmas night in some lower-middle-class locality. Arindam Ghatak's editing keeps things taut and varied, important in a film that depends on the effectiveness of the tension in a series of cat and mouse chases. Independently, most of these scenes work, though there's more horrific gore than perhaps was needed to be shown. But the film as a whole unfortunately doesn't cut it. The premise is too muddled and too moralistic to work as a straightforward thriller. And the central sinner-saint dynamic, and the notion of a turnaround in which one becomes the other, is too pat. The relentless Christian symbolism – the bible with a gun in it, Jesus on the cross — is too heavy-handed. The question of good and evil is rather a big one, and Ahishor Solomon has bitten off more than he can chew. ALSO SEE John Day review: Too dull and boring for a thriller Naseeruddin Shah rubbishes boycotting John Day reports RELATED VIDEOS Wanna get dirty with Vidya Balan? Wait for The Dirty Picture! Dark, explosive, unsettling: Anurag Kashyaps \'That Girl in Yellow Boots\'

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