Oh Yuva Yuuvaa!This is likely to be a long post, so make sure you are sitting comfortably with a cup of coffee at your side...
Having an SDFS ticket (Thanks to the operating procedures of the Indian Box Office, SDFS can mean both Second Day First Show or Saturday First Show, much like FDFS), I was extremely keen to avoid all reviews and comments on Mani Ratnam's Yuva so as to be able to form an individual opinion of my own. However, I couldn't help noticing the headline of the Rediff review (by Prem Panicker): "Yuva disappoints". As a result, I wistfully thought whether the film had lost to the weight of expectations. But then a keen sense of rationalisation set in and the mind clung to past reviews of films that I had ended up disagreeing with.
Having watched it completely today, my own personal register rings happily and gleefully: the film is great! It's not 10 on 10, but there was so much to take in and marvel at that I'm rather keen on watching it once more. I'm happy to disagree with the bulk of the Rediff reviews that claimed that the film suffers in its screenplay. I can only say to you: watch it for yourself first, and make up your mind.
On the screenplay:
Mani Ratnam has been playing around with the structure of his screenplays for the last few films he's done, most notably Alaipayuthe. Perhaps if you are a film viewer of vast experience, these steps may seem insignificant and unoriginal. But in the context of mainstream Indian cinema, these are huge leaps. Hardly anyone dares to explore possibilities or even understands the need for it. Yuva brings in newer ways of telling stories to the mainstream. Remember, he also needs to cater for those stragglers who may not offer to come to terms with something other than strictly linear narratives. This is a fine balancing act, and the film scores in this respect. Critics of the screenplay may not be willing to let go of old conventions. Or they are mixing up their criticism of the story itself with the structure. I haven't seen but only read about Amores Perros (the film that was rumoured to be the basis for Yuva/AE); I don't think there's much more than any superficial similarities. And when Mani Ratnam said in interviews that it is closer to Rashomon than Amores Perros, he doesn't mean it entirely. (I mean to say that comparing Virumaandi with the Japanese classic would be more meaningful and would convey the right ideas.) Mr. Panicker talks of the midpoint being placed at first; unlike him I don't see a problem with it. Mani Ratnam has been bolder this time as past efforts have always shown him to be not entirely brave enough to go the whole hog of experimentation.
On the story:
One Rediff review criticised the lack of character development and another contradicted it by pointing to over-characterisation. (The profusion of reviews clearly bears out what I had noted a few months ago that this novel twin effort are easily the most talked about films in recent times; the flood of reviews has only just begun.) I disagree with both. The characterisation was adequate, especially given the length of the film and the content. The film straddles a window that spans from the recent past to the immediate future. We don't want too many useless details of the past that have no bearing on the next set of events. However, we are presented (if we listen carefully) sufficient aspects about the characters that indicate why someone is the way he/she is. For e.g., we don't know why a Bengali Brahmin in Rani Mukherjee is married to a Bihari thug in Abhishek Bachchan. But is it a hindrance in following the rest of the plot? I think not. I am however informed during the course of dialogue between the brothers that they individually fled their village to Calcutta for different reasons.In these matters, directors like Mani Ratnam are damned if they do and damned if they don't. They are expected to push the frontiers, but not without losing conventional plot elements, which isn't always reasonable.
Reviewers seem to be complaining about how the story doesn't delve deep into the politics and elections angle. I wonder why they thought Yuva to be all about that. Perhaps it was the effect of some of the trailers, but I think they had unreasonably made up their minds beforehand. The story essentially was about a certain period in the lives of three men, and what they do and how they think have large bearings on the story development. They are not entirely representative of their own types of youth. Neither is it about the process of how Arjun wants to get a visa or how Michael plans to win the elections or what will happen to Lallan after the film has ended. Viewers must learn to read between the lines and fill in the spaces with their own colours - in short apply some imagination and marry it with the necessary assumptions. The ending is in the usual spirit of classic Mani Ratnam optimism, though some ends are left open. I liked that, for it suggests that the writer has the courage to not contrive perfect resolutions. There is still some more distance to go.
Having said that, there are quite a few jarring details, like whether the college students are old enough to fight state elections (must check on this), why they dug up that big pit during the song and whether there's only one Coffee Day outlet in the whole of Kolkata!
The technical departments:
Some of the best names line up on the credits and it shows. The sharp editing (Sreekar Prasad), top notch photography, especially the hand-held shots (Ravi K. Chandran) and Sabu Cyril's art direction are a big asset. I thought the action ("Vikram" Dharma) was a little too exaggerated, and out of place in the MR method. Having said that, it was quite pacy at points, and the Bridge showdown was very well executed. I am never going to look at a motorcyle again without thinking of the opening sequences and that free-for-all. One can see why MR wanted a purely background score at first, wherever he uses the soundtrack like that, it enhances the storytelling. So it is a disappointment that he didn't to stick to that, purely from the pov of his own development. ( Previous thoughts on the soundtrack). It's like a batsman who wants to hit a six, but is not all sure of hitting a ball in the air - you can see the dilemma. The song sequences are not all that jarring and sometimes do propel the plot. The Sasi-Lallan montage to Dol Dol is a case in point, very well done. I enjoyed Rahman's BGM. The sync sound is unobtrusive and hence clearly doing a good job.
A special mention of Anurag Kashyap who once again proves why he is one of the best writers around. His dialogues have to span a great range, from Bihari boli to Bengali Hindi to more urban lingo, but he does a fabulous job. They are as realistic as they can get.
The screen performances:
I've hardly ever known a MR film to get its casting wrong. As I thought, Yuva scores on that angle as well, though not unscathed. Fears were expressed on the inclusion of Vivek Oberoi, Kareena Kapoor and Esha Deol. I've always thought Oberoi can act, so his tuned performance as the unsure and hedonistic Tamilian (as it turned out, which has him say "PoDa Kora.ngu" at one point, if you care) was no surprise. Kareena Kapoor is another example of what Mani saar can do to an actor - her turn as the peppy, carefree college girl is quite good, I must say. Casting them for their roles as Arjun and Mira (Meera?) was spot on.
Coming to Esha Deol, well I don't want to use the word "suck" for a Mani Ratnam film, but she hasn't really proved herself as an actress of any real capability. Unlike Abhishek Bachchan, whom I expected to do very well, given the scope and meat of his role. I still cannot believe he didn't want to do it. Prem Panicker aptly calls him the IOU of Hindi films who now cashes in. Having only seen the Small B previously in Om Jai Jagdish (compared to which this performance is an Oscar winning one!), I think this may be his best screen portrayal ever. Not completely polished, but increasingly confident of himself as an actor for sure.
Contrary to all expectations, Ajay Devgan doesn't quite put on the assured effort that we've now come to expect of him. Questions will be raised on the aptness of his appearance, given the "college student" requirements. He certainly could have done a lot more. On the other hand, my vote for the best performance goes to Rani Mukherjee. Yet again in a film by a Tamil director, she speaks Bengali, is unfazed by the intimate scenes and gives a riveting performance as the tortured Sashi. Her outburst in her last scene in the film was the crowning point. The Rani Mukherjee that appears in trash Bollywood films with terrible wardrobes must be an evil twin. Probably this one should relocate to Kodambakkam.
Bengali speakers may correct me, but I thought Om Puri as Prosenjit Babu put on an excellent accent. Though in a miniscule role, I loved watching Anant Nag on screen again. Saurabh Shukla and Vijay Raaz are competent (It is a recurring pattern in Mani Ratnam films that he can get very good actors to play even tiny roles in his films, perhaps it is a great note for their respective filmographies). Particularly, I would like to point out the guy who plays Gopal, Lallan's elder brother (Is that Sonu Sood?). Another excellent casting decision, for not only does the guy act well with his Bihari twang, he also has a close physical resemblance to Bachchan. There were quite a lot of other actors who have appeared in earlier MR flicks, most notably the guy who played the possible suitor for Shalini and Rani Mukherjee in both Alaipayuthe and Saathiya as Vishnu and the lady who played Madhavan's sister in Kannathil Muthamittal as Leela, Michael's mother. Undoubtedly, they must be in Aayitha Ezhuthu as well.
I was greatly excited when I heard the film was set in Calcutta. I don't know if you have ever had the experience, but it sometimes happens that a place endears itself to us because some kind of exposure to it, like say, a short visit to it, or reading about it in a favourite novel etc. I've always had that fascination for Calcutta. It stems from two visits to Calcutta years ago, and it is moored in romantic associations with the history of the place and the "feel" of the city rather than any realism. All the main highlights of Calcutta are there: the bridges, the trams and Metros and fully yellow taxis, the pani-puris and the "paaDa" football in the rains, the houses as I knew them and white starched dhotis. Again reminds me of Hey Ram. Though Aayitha Ezhuthu will fundamentally be the same film as Yuva, these differences are inviting enough for someone to watch both. And where better to host a story involving politics than in Calcutta.
The details of the three different worlds that the three characters come from have been accurately portrayed and are entirely believable. You just have to see this to appreciate it.
The pan Indianism:
Ok, I'm a sucker for Pan Indianism. Not surprising considering that I'm a Tamilian who has lived a majority of my life in marathi speaking cities, with friends and neighbours who speak marathi or telugu or bengali or gujarati among others. I've hated Bollywood for never bothering to go beyond insular Punjabi and specific Hindi based settings, and worse, reducing the others to caricatures. That's why I am tremendously passionate about the efforts of the likes of Mani Ratnam and Ram Gopal Varma. The fact that you have films with characters consisting of a Maharashtrian cop making rasam for his Tamil wife, or a guy speaking Bihari Hindi in a film with a Sindhi businessman and a Telugu speaking baddy. It reflects the nation (atleast the urban nation) as we know it. So the fact that we have four Bengali lead characters (admittedly two not doing a great job), one Tamilian, one UP based, one Bihari is after my heart. This wouldn't be possible in the Tamil version I guess, where the possible spread would be more regional.
I've shot off almost everything I felt about. I'm not saying (not yet atleast) that this is among Mani Ratnam's very best, but this is definitely another feather in his cap. That's my personal first-take. If the film is "disappointing", then I'm a cross-eyed sailor with the name of Long John. I may be a fan, but I'm not that blindly biased. I believe that MR fans are among the most critical of watchers and will have their differing opinions, but I hope the rest wouldn't be swayed by a one word description which doesn't do it justice. There are so many layers to ponder about, such as the primary colours symbolism that hangs in the background, the near-perfect reactions and retorts and a new way of looking at storytelling. Don't judge hastily or on hearsay is all I ask. Shooting off opinions without consideration is quite unreasonable and no good for the the future of such efforts. If someone is suggesting that AE is better than Yuva, then I can't wait to watch it. As for you, stuff all that I've said in a can and just go watch it yourself!
[Rant: Damn the E-Square projectionist for stopping the film before the end credits rolled out. Whoever made that decision has raised a lifelong enemity with me.]