In a career of 15 years the inevitably unpredictable R. Balki has directed only five films, and none since Padman in 2018. Before we plunge into Balki’s Chup:The Revenge Of The Artiste this Friday, let’s assess his five directorial undertakings so far, each completely different in theme, ,mood and derringdo from the previous.
- Cheeni Kum(2007): Cheeni Kum is probably the sauciest, sassiest, slickest, smoothest and most scrumptious romantic comedy you’ll see in the Hindi language in a long time.She’s in London for a holiday. He is a cantankerous sarcastic chef who can’t take a snub even when it’s served up on a platter.Menu rab da vaasta!Lolita, go eat your art out. Cheeni Kum makes you forget there’s a difference of 30 years between the girl and, ahem ahem, the boy. That’s the magic of pure acting. The magic of two of the finest actors at work as they create an ebullient alchemy.On the menu in this mellow ode to love’s luminous largesse are an 85 -year old mom(Zohra Sehgal) living life king-sized, a 7-year old terminally-ill girl(Swini Khara, the most prized discovery of the year) who watches claims the chef as her very intimate friend and watches all the adult DVDs he gets her, since she won’t get a chance to do so later. Then there’s heroine’s Gandhian father who can’t stop reminding his damaad-to-be of his autumnal age. And last but certainly not the least in this feisty feast, there’s the churlish chef’s kitchen staff comprising some of the most sparkling cameo-actors you’ve seen . Unarguably one of the finest directorial talents in this millennium , Balki just sweeps that age thing under the carpet. Yes, the dialogues make pointed barbed references to what it’s like for two such generation-challenged people to come together and laugh at each other’s foibles. It’s hard to decide in which capacity Balki scores higher marks… as director or dialogue writer. Caustic and crisp, mordant and modern, pithy and passionate….the words weave a minty magic across this intelligent yet spontaneous comedy of romantic errors .Shakespeare meets Gulzar in this evocative and funny love story. The flavour of the exchanges between the wry surly chef in London and the serene Indian girl from Delhi who makes the cardinal mistake of criticizing the arrogant chef’s Hyderabadi biryani, is so distinctly pungent and peppery you wonder which came first in the writer-director’s range of vision: the mix-matched couple or the words that they exchange to bring each other closer to that feeling which we sometimes call love, sometimes don’t even recognize it for what it is. Just like the dishes from the kitchen of the Indian restaurant where some of the satire unfurls, the brilliant banter between Bachchan and Tabu is light on top, cooked just right and served at ummmmmmmmmm temperature. In the first -half cinematographer P.C Sreeram captures an unexplored side of London. As the relationship between the couple grows, you sense undercurrents of feisty defiant and mischievous feelings trickling out of the verbal banter that you until now thought existed only in the range of the unspoken.But then Mr Bachchan and Tabu are that kind of actors. They imbue every encounter on the rain-slickened streets of London into an occasion to celebrate the life force.Not Paresh Rawail who as Mr Bachchan’s outraged father-in-law –to-be is surprisingly bland, but Zohra Sehgal as Mr Bachchan’s spunky mother and more specially ,little Swini Khara as Mr Bachchan’s nextdoor neighbour who in her terminal illness provides the narrative with the gift of life….grab the lapels of your heart and sweep you into a world of love’s most satirical fears and foibles.There are moments in this quirky captivating and curvaceous cinema that touch the highest notes of drama without getting hysterical.What makes Cheeni Kum so unique? Is it the amazingly laidback chemistry between the lead pair? Is it the combination of satire and romance, mixed stirred and served up in a tall frothy glass? It is Balki’s word-spin that takes the romance into areas of absolutely seductive brightness? Is it the the way London(mellow, supple, sensuous) and Delhi(heated grimy and spiced up) have ben captured by Sreeram’s calmly articulate cinematography? Or is it Ilayaraja’s talcum-fresh melodies trickling emotions in austere motions?What makes Cheeni Kum so special in spite of a far-from-flawless second-half?Could it be just the magic between Amitabh Bachchan and Tabu who seem to look into each other’s eyes and souls with such warmth and affection you forget their age difference completely.Nah! It’s more. Cheeni Kum is a film where the words so match the thoughts and feelings of the characters that you forget someone else wrote the dialogues for the unlikely lovers.
- Paa (2009): Somewhere in this enchanting, enrapturing, heart-warming journey into the heart of a specially-gifted child, our 11-going-on-80 hero, the child born out of wedlock, Auro says to his 34-year old father, ”I’m the last to last to last mistake that you made. There’re some flaws in the narration. Minor, as they turn out to be, when you see the larger, supremely harmonious, picture .But you blissfully overlook the blemishes, to focus on a magical universe that the writer-director creates from the raw material of that hurtful thing called life.Before we can say ‘Ouch’, Balki opens a new window to the clear-blue sky much beyond the clouds that hover on our day-to-day existence, each time life begins to suck.A happy film on a child suffering from a rare genetic disorder which tends to age him four times faster than normal? You’ve got to be kidding! How does Balki manage it? It could have something to do with his deep but never burdensome understanding of the single-most critical mystery of existence… That you make of life what you want it to be.Take the spirited Vidya(Balan). After her ambitious lover-boy Amol Atre(Abhishek Bachchan) refuses to accept their love-child she decides to move to Lucknow with her supremely supportive mother(Arundhati Nag) so she can go ahead and have her child.But hang on! Unwed motherhood is not all that fate has in store for Vidya. The child is born with Progeria. And there begins the narrative’s nubile waltz of life and death, performed with a sumptuous elan that is at once spontaneous and manipulative.Portions of the film, like Auro’s introductory sequence at a school function where the upright politician who happens to be Auro’s secret father, gives the special boy a trophy, or the finale where Auro’s parents take the saat-pheras around his death bed, smack of filmy connivance.Balki smoothly and splendidly gets away with the contrivances. They fit rather aptly into the picture of a brief life lived in the glow of radiant happiness.In many ways Auro reminded me of Anand. In Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Anand, Rajesh Khanna enters into people’s mildly troubled lives, fills them with joie de vivre and vanishes into the oblivion of mortality.Auro is a far more complicated act. Amitabh Bachchan has to transform into a rapidly-aging child, throw the manipulative (oops, that word again!) tantrums of an adolescent and yet keeping from appearing caricatural or grotesque. The actor manages all of this, and more, with a fluency that makes you want to grope for new superlatives. Mr Bachchan’s Auro act qualifies as one of the finest most nuanced and sharp performances ever in the history of the motion-picture.It’s hard to define in words the warm knowledge of the inner workings of a 12-year old child who knows he’s dying, that Mr Bachchan brings into this film.Paa could be bereft if not orphaned without the Bachchan’s counter-domineering presence where he simply vanishes into Auro’s wrinkled body. From that credibly modulated voice to the sagging walk, he makes the child’s inner beauty mock his ugly exterior in almost a spiritual synthesis of soul and body.Many of the scenes featuring Auro with his school friends have been written with a tongue-in-cheek comprehension of the way the world of the school-going children works. The kids, supporting the ailing but never failing Auro’s presence, are bright and sympathetic without making a song and dance of the special presence in their midst.What comes in the way of the narrative’s smooth progression from Auro’s life to heartbreaking death, is the politics of the plot. That, Auro’s dad happens to be a politician, is a misfortune which the screenplay tries to transcend by making Amol Atre that contradiction in (the 5-year) term. An upright politician, Abhishek plays him sensitively, oh yes. But his uprightness when placed against Auro’s spontaneous mischief and wicked disdain for the sacred cows of life and living, appears hugely inadequate.Besides fighting corrupt political forces Anmol also has to indulge in some heavy-duty media-bashing, aired live on Doordrshan if you please. You impatiently wait for the narrative to return to Auro’s world of mom, grandmom and those little joys of being a privileged child.While Mr Bachchan’s Auro is the film’s backbone, Vidya Balan as his mother brings a rare and precious understanding to her tearless but troubled, single-mother’s part. The women in Balki’s films are always enchanting in their eccentricity. In Paa, whether it’s the little girl, who chases Auro in the school or his bohemian grandmother at home, these women won’t take no for an answer from life.The asymmetry of the world that Balki’s characters inhabit is richly complemented by the technical virtuosity and packaging of P.C Sreeram’s cinematography, that captures the greenery of the outdoors and the cosy comforts of the interiors with seamless visual correctness. Ilaiyaaraja’s melodies weave themselves into Auro’s tale tenderly.Paa is a film that could have easily been weighed down by the supreme strength of its central, once-in-an-eternity performance. Balakrishnan doesn’t let Auro’s tale become subservient to the incredibly skilled performance behind it.And that’s the miracle which we all must witness in Paa.
- Shamitabh(2015): Balki’s third feature film is perhaps his most audacious cinematic journey yet. The writer-director takes the voice of Mr Bachchan (in other words, the voice of the nation) and puts it on Dhanush, that intelligent Tamil actor who is rapidly emerging as the inheritor to Kamal Haasan’s legacy.It really can’t any more audacious than this…though admittedly there’s no telling what Balki would dare to do next.Shamitabh opens yet another door to Balki’s creative resourcefulness. There are only three main characters in the film: the film-obsessed mute Danish, Amitabh Sinha(!!),the autumnal cauldron of discontent who gives voice to Danish’s dream, and the very cute assistant director Akshara (Akshara Haasan) who plays a reluctant and rather frail mediator between the two raging men. She is really not up to the task. But then, life never plays fair.Given the inventive premise of the plot and the sheer charm of the three principal actors Balki could have comfortably allowed the narrative to work itself out. Blessedly there is no lazy writing in this powerful film. Almost every narrative twist is cleverer and wiser than it would outwardly seem. At times, you may think the film is trying to act smarter than it actually is and in the process it may seem as though the narrative is getting carried away with itself.But no. Every action has a profound cause. There is a grand design behind every seemingly spontaneous movement in the plot. You may wonder why Amitabh, the embittered alcoholic actor with a voice that could move mountains, lives in the graveyard (with an entertaining sidekick-cum-confidante)…A bit of a metaphoric indulgence, you would say. But wait for the film’s stunning finale: death is indeed a grave matter, especially in lives that have seen better days.Balki’s characters light up the present with their stubborn eccentricities. Not coincidentally all the three path-breaking characters that Mr Bachchan has played in Balki’s films so far have been relentlessly stubborn characters. Going many steps ahead of his vain chef’s character in Cheeni Kum and the arrogant progeric boy-man in Paa, Mr Bachchan in Shamitabh is a raging volcano of ill-tempered defiance.Early in the narrative we are told (in that mesmerizing voice that plays the main lead in the plot) that once upon a time The Voice had been rejected by not just the film industry but all popular mediums. This, as any Bachchan fan would tell you, is a fact from the superstar’s real life.Balki is a Bachchan fan and a director. He picks out many real-life incidents and character-traits from Mr Bachchan’s life (for instance, that smirking monologue about why we choose ape Hollywood by calling our film industry ‘Bollywood’) to create a character whose splendid surliness sweeps across the plot’s canvas creating a man who has never quite come to terms with his failure and now suddenly gets one last chance to be famous as a wannabe superstar’s voice.It’s a compelling premise transported to illuminating heights by the writer-director’s insight into human nature. Balki never flinches from looking at the darker zones of human nature. Yet, he likes to keep the surface amiable gentle and very viewer-friendly. His cinematographic ally P C Sreeram paints an almost Shakespearean autumnal ruin around Mr Bachchan’s character. Wisely the colour palate gets more eye-catching and vibrant when the camera is around Dhanush and Akshara, the wannabe star from rural Maharashtra who goes on to become, ahem, the first Marathi superstar of Bollywood.The journey is mapped with immense warmth and tenderness. The child-actor who plays Dhanush’s film-crazy character in the prologue is so in-character you wonder if Balki stole him away from a nearby movie theatre.The boy’s obsession with movies is captured in enchanting visuals: he hops on to a bus to Mumbai and is quickly whisked off and brought back a village-gent on a scooter. But we know he is unstoppable. Dhanush plays the mute star-aspirant with astonishing understanding. His role gets progressively complex, as his on-screen persona must mesh with the Bachchan baritone in a way where the merger looks convincing. Dhanush manages to pull the character, dragging kicking and, er, screaming (in a manner of speaking…or not speaking, as it happens to be) into the realm of the utterly believable.The chemistry between the alcohol-laden Voice and the dream-drenched Face is the film’s focal point. Dhanush’s rapport with Akshara’s character never quite gets there, partly because she is a little too young and inexperienced-looking for the part.Ilaiyaraja’s background score is far more evocative than the songs which strive to be ‘cool’ rather than compelling.But you are really not listening. Not to the songs. Not to the characters. But to the sound of their aching arching hearts reaching into a space beyond what God and technology have created for them.Nothing prepares you for this astonishing film. It’s absolutely original plot and spellbinding aesthetics make compulsive viewing. The delicacy and dynamism of structure and movement are indicative of Balki’s mastery of the medium.For this creator of modern-day morality tales cinema is not about making the right noises and creating pretty pictures. He does both, and then finds space for another dimension of discovery where the characters find the center of their universe by overcoming the pain that must be borne by all non-conformists.Shamitabh is not just a homage to the great Bachchan baritone it is also a magnificent ode to the theme of human mortality. The love of Bollywood (sorry, Mr Bachchan) runs across the plot in frenzied rhythms. The two principal actors play out their conjoined karmas with a passion that burns your soul.Mr Bachchan rages and towers over the proceedings as only he can. Is there no end to his brilliancy? Dhanush’s synchronicity with the Big B, so crucial to the plot, proves him to be an actor of remarkable resources. Thankfully, like Balki Dhanush is a Big B fan later, an honest artiste first. Akshara Haasan holds her own between the two seething squabbling co-stars, though the sequence where she chastises both the men in a kindergarten class falls pretty flat. Not her fault. Akshara never allows us to know this is her first.
- Ki & Ka(2016): The streeling is pulling Arjun Kapoor into the kitchen.And Kareena Kapoor doesn’t mind as long he is fully functional in the bedroom.That, dear audience, in a nutshell is Ki & Ka. A film about role reversal between the sexes where the ambitious wife Kiya(Kareena) goes out to earn the bread and butter, while the husband Kabir(Arjun) is blissfully happy looking after the home.Immediately ,there is an infectious charm to the proceedings. Every scene is a joy to behold. It could have something to do with Kareena Kapoor’s presence. She lights up every frame as only she can. And then when you have the cinematographic genius P C Sreeram manning the lenses even Arjun Kapoor looks so radiant, you want to ask this couple….where do they generate so much sunshine in their souls?Most films about married couples in Bollywood are paeans of pain. Well, surprise surprise! A marriage need not be a melody of misery, provided the couple does what it wants to without caring about how they would look to the world.So when Kabir meets Kia on a flight , they hit it off instantly.The words that flow between the cool Kabir and the hot Kiya are so conversational I wondered if Arjun and Kareena thought of the dialogues as they played out their characters’ combined karma. The dialogues are never florid or bombastic. Every character , even in those very engaging boardroom meeting in Kareena/Kiya’s workplace, are so lived-in , they are worthy of being illustrative of how couples should converse in our films from now till the time when rom-coms are made in Bollywood.The incidental character even a random staggler like the guy who shushes the couples in the hospital is memorable.And I fell in love with Kiya’s maid who saunters in at noon,puts on her employer’s tv, plonks herself on the sofa and phones her boyfriend to come over for some fun.Seriously, I want to see an entire film on her life.For now,there is Balki and his take on how to playfully dodge gender stereotyping in a country where even words have a gender. Given the unbelievable patriarchal prejudices it takes guts for a man like Kabir to tell his father to shove his wealth up his you-know-what,as he, Kabir wants to be an housekeeper like his mother. It takes even more guts for an actor to play a man who is happy cooking, cleaning and living off his wife’s income.Arjun Kapoor makes the character’s unconventional ,some would say downright embarrassing aspirations seem so normal, you wonder why more husbands don’t adopt the you-go-I-stay route. The joy he exudes in house-keeping chores is almost contagious. The hurt he conveys is palpable when his wife begins to resent his growing popularity (Abhimaan in reverse) as the face of the metrosexual kindered man very happily, very heterosexually in touch with the feminine side of his personality.Perhaps it is the company that Arjun keeps. Kareena Kapoor Khan’s dazzling beauty (I am afraid there is no other way to describe it) plus her ability to communicate her character’s frantic ambitions without making her seem like a man in skirts, makes Balki’s job a lot easier. How wrong can you go when you have so much beauty grace and talent at your disposal?Not that Balki is in the mood to get lazy with his charming couple’s ability to make the frames look fabulous even when they are dressed in their night clothes or perched on the potty. To make a film where the couple is submerged under no marital stress(Kareena’s easygoing mother , played by the long-missing Swaroop Sampat is the antithesis of Jaya Bhaduri’s meddlesome mom, Achala Sachdev in Kora Kagaz who wrecks havoc on her daughter’s marriage) is not as easy as it sounds.This genial film about two young free-spirited people who assume non-traditional roles and then live happily ever after(almost) is powered by terrific directorial treatment.Freed of flamboyant and florid flourishes the free-flowing narrative sweeps you into its arms with its understated charm.Much of non-dramatic scenes are played pitch-perfectly because of the writing and the two actors. Before too long you begin to care for Kabir and Kiya the way you would for a couple in the neighbourhood that doesn’t quite fit in.The lengthy sequence where she is traumatized by a suspected pregnancy winds its way through a series of finely cut shots(Chandan Arora’s editing keeps the proceeding snappy but gives the couple space to express their feelings comfortably) adding up to a sequence that’s savagely real and funny and somehow,slightly sad too.These are scenes from a marriage that will outlast temporary setbacks.The crisis point in Kiya and Kabir’s winsome togetherness is reached in a tongue-in-cheek homage to Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Abhimaan. Kiya’s outburst accusing Arjun of being a scheming manipulator makes her look awfully unfair and rather paranoid. Wives, we know,are capable of such temporary lapses of reason.The crisis, you feel, is brought on because every film needs one. Ironically the climactic crisis in the couple’s marriage is precipitated by Amitabh and Jaya Bachchan who make a very agreeable joint appearance.The best dialogue of the film is given to Mrs Bachchan who tells her superstar husband, “If I had continued my career and if you had agreed to look after our home I would have been the one waving to fans outside.”The film begins with Arjun Kapoor sobbing on a flight and ends with Kareena Kapoor sobbing on another flight.They are welcome to their drama.We came away smiling from this affable drama that proves a happy marriage is not a myth.
- Padman(2018): There is the period film. And then there is the film about the periods. Excellence comes in many packages. But rarely in a small secret package wrapped in a newspaper. Sometimes these packages cost as much as Rs 55 and are completely out of reach for the non-urban women of India.One man in Tamil Nadu, who is miraculously a convincingly-transformed North Indian in Pad Man, decided to do something about making sanitary pads affordable to poor women. The thought was not just unmentionable, but also outrageous. It still is.The pain humiliation, strife and final victory of Laxmikant Chauhan is narrated in a series of quickly-cut quirky bitterly humorous episodes (editor Chandan Arora can take a bow) that could easily have become caricatured, preachy and propagandist.Pad Man is none of the above. It celebrates the spirit of enterprise with enrapturing integrity and tempered gusto, rendering the saga of Laxmikant Chauhan’s journey from familial humiliation and spouse-deseration to a PadmaShri addressing the United Nations. One of India’s finest cinematographers P C Sreeram makes Laxmikant’s audacious odyssey a visual manifestation of a life that defies logical definition.Pad Man has two heroes. Akshay Kumar and PC Sreeram.But before we get there, a word on the cinema of noble intentions that seems to have run out of steam in these times of perverse dreams. Nobility in these cynical twisted times when little girls get raped and big boys sell state secrets for big bucks, is not a quality we value in art. Given the premium we place on selfinterest the sheer generosity of spirit that R Balki displays in his fifth feature film—and by far his finest work—should be reason to stand up and applaud PadMan.But wait. Hold on to your seats. There is much more to celebrate in this wonderfully motivated film, a tidalwave of menstrual liberation that sweeps us into its charming folds like an old grandmother in whose arms we would cuddle and forget the worries of the world. PadMan possesses a rare innocence and charm. The proclivity to live a life of utter selflessness that seeps out of every pore in its protagonist’s heart, comes pouring out of every frame, wrapping us in a feeling of bonhomie that captures life’s most cherishable emotions.It is very hard, almost impossible, to forget the protagonist, a true hero of our times, Laxmikant Chauhan. And not only because of the luminous way the character is written by Balki and his co-writer Swanand Kirkire. It’s the way Akshay Kumar plays Laxmikant, a man driven to insane bouts of audacity by the passion to diminish the pain that women experience for 5 days(disparagingly referred to as ‘test match’ by the boys of the mohallah) every month.Balki adopts a simple straightforward linear narrative mode, leaving behind the swag and swagger of Chini Kum, Ki & Ka and the underrated Shamitabh to focus on the man and his mission with a single mindedness of vision shared in equal measures by the protagonist and the filmmaker. There are passages of keen satire rubbing shoulders with fleeting images of deep contemplation in the supple sturdy and rugged storytelling,all merging in a marriage of Pure Cinema and Social Statement.The narrative does tend to overstate its case. And there are sequences such as the one between Sonam and her screen father in a car at the end, which smack of over-explanation. But most of the time Balki knows where to hold back and where to let go. The pauses in Laxmikant’s saga are rarely filled with irrelevance.Balki and his leading man won’t allow a life so rarefied to be inured in nonsense.The performances are uniformly appealing. I love Balki’s unusual casting tricks in all his films. Here in PadMan watch out exciting underexposed acting talent, for instance veteran actress Jyoti Subhash as Akshay Kumar’s mother. And Sunil Sinha (remember him in Gulzar’s Maachis?) as Sonam Kapoor’s Sardarji father. Sinha has some of the best father-daughter scenes with Sonam and the film’s finest line: “To be a complete father, try playing the mother. To be a complete man try feeling a woman’s pain.”While Radhika Apte as Akshay’s wife is uncharacteristically over-the-top in conveying a woman’s menstrual anxieties(at times she behaves as though the wife Gayatri has her time of the month for the entire month) Sonam’s Pari is a delight. The actress plays a table player and an incorrigible do-gooder and Laxmikant’s biggest support, all without toppling over into excessive sweetness.The kiss she shares with her co-star is a little…ummmm…out of place. But that’s okay. No one and nothing is perfect.The film belongs to Akshay Kumar. Make no mistake about that. Playing Laxmikant with a mixture of inbuilt ingenuity and curiosity he makes the man believable and endearing, so compassionate and inspiring. As Laxmikant Chauhan/Arunachalam Muruganantham, Akshay Kumar’s rousing speech at the UN is the showreel that will be shown when he gets his first lifetime achievement award. In the meanwhile, do reserve every single acting honour of 2018 for this performance.