Saturday, June 27, 2009

New York


Ths spat between the Bollywood producers and exhibitors have finally come to an end for now, and this Aditya Chopra produced film becomes the first off the blocks locally, and what more than a summer film that had its promotional trailer playing since late last year finally being able to see some light, starring some of my favourite Bollywood stars like John Abraham and Irrfan Khan.

I had been impressed by director Kabir Khan's debut feature Kabul Express, which also starred Abraham, and Khan has a knack for drawing the audience into contemporary social issues, given his journalist background. For his two features to date, he has crafted tales around the issue of terrorism, not to glamorize it, but to tell the more human aspects into what probably were the push factors for someone to go off the edge and succumb to the notion that violence is the only means available to justify their cause. And to do so without draping the film in melodrama, or with sympathy in excess.

In Kabul Express, we look at the background of a Taliban soldier who in frequent role reversals, become both the captive and the captor, with a moving story as to what made him do the things he did. In New York, a similar strategy applies in addressing some post-9/11 issues where foreigners were profiled and held in detention, finally being released in months or years because of the lack of evidence. If Bollywood constantly draws inspiration from Hollywood, then the film that had dealt with similar themes would be Rendition, and a smattering of Crash thrown in as well.

The film spent its first act very much closely resembling that in the trailer, which dwells on the lives of three good friends who met at the New York State University, Americans of Indian origin Sam(ir) Sheik (Abrahan), Maya (Katrina Kaif) and an Indian student on a scholarship Omar (Neil Nitin Mukesh). Having two guys and a girl translates to a romantic triangle brewing, where Maya drifts toward the more down-to-earth Omar, but having her heart already firmly set for the arrogantly confident Sam. It's like a teenage college romance with a lengthy musical montage just to cement their fast and strong relationship, until declarations from the heart, and 9/11 come play a part to separate them all.

To tell you any more would be to spoil the fun, because the story takes an interesting narrative structure in keeping you guessing who's turned to the dark side, and who's not; who's lying and who's telling the truth. It has intensity almost close to that in Infernal Affairs, where you wonder just who might turn because of the allegiance to friendship. You can imagine how you would feel if you're asked by the authorities to work undercover for them just because they have something against you, and you're to cooperate for leniency or face the music - what would you do to save your own skin, and if it calls for covert surveillance of your friends, would you do it?

Irrfan Khan's Roshan is an FBI agent because of his roots and ability to connect with his "brothers", and this comes fairly accurately as the US agencies had begun to ramp up its recruitment of non-native English speakers so that they can gain keen insights from surveillance to things like translation. In fact, the Roshan character was dangerously close to being a clone of Irrfan's Slumdog Millionaire turn, especially at the interrogation table in having to fish out the truth. Neil Nitin Mukesh had more of a dramatic challenge with his role as the freshie Omar compared to his action role as a photographer in Aa Dekhen Zara, while John Abraham looked very much comfortable with his self-assured character given his alpha-male persona. Despite being one of the most photographed actresses/models in India, this film would mark my first watching Katrina Kaif in action, and I guess beautiful women get no love from female audiences who are there to root for the two male leads.

New York struck a fine balance between drama and action, devoting time to each primarily before and after the intermission. It may not be the first film that dealt with the terrorism issue on US soil, but it did enough to continue the awareness that sometimes certain policies stemming from acute paranoia just don't work, and may become that self-fulfilling prophecy that would return to haunt you. Between Kabir Khan's two films, I still prefer the former, but that doesn't mean that New York isn't worth a shout out.

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