Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Phillum noir: Manorama Six Feet Under

Navdeep Singh’s Manorama Six Feet Under is another in a line of very interesting, relatively low-profile films that haven’t done too well on commercial release but which seem likely to acquire cult followings on DVD. Other notable recent movies of this type include Sriram Raghavan’s Johnny Gaddaar and Anurag Kashyap’s No Smoking (posts on these here and here). These are films made by directors who are unafraid to play auteur, bring very personal visions to the big screen, and who are serious movie buffs themselves – as much students as practitioners (much the same way as Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and the other “kids with beards” were in the late 1960s, and the French New Wave directors a decade earlier). They know a lot about other cinemas and about a variety of filmmaking styles and genres, but are secure enough about their own talents to be able to openly acknowledge their influences and to build on them. (Raghavan actually played a couple of minutes from the early 1970s film Parwaana to show how its plot inspires his protagonist, but this didn’t at all make Johnny Gaddaar seem jaded or derivative.)

Manorama Six Feet Under works with the template of Roman Polanski’s superb “neo-noir” film Chinatown, but it uses that template selectively and intelligently. Chinatown, about a private eye investigating corruption in the Los Angeles water department while also trying to figure out the motivations of the woman who has hired him, was an uncompromisingly cynical view of human nature that didn’t give the viewer a shard of hope, let alone a silver lining. Manorama doesn’t end on a comparably bleak note (in fact, it’s possible to argue that the last few minutes are a bit of a cop-out), but otherwise its tone is very similar to Polanski’s film. At the same time, one never gets the impression that the plot of an American movie has been arbitrarily picked up and moved to an Indian setting with incongruous results - the shift to a small desert town in Rajasthan here is done just as convincingly as the placing of Othello in the Uttar Pradesh heartland in Omkara.

The opening scene
is assured, compact and immediately sets the mood. A brief glimpse of a large elevated water tank standing alone in the middle of the desert is followed by a tracking shot that includes ants scurrying over the parched ground, a group of children huddled together near a small fire, and finally an overhead view of junior engineer Satyaveer Randhawa (Abhay Deol) exiting the door of a Public Works Department site office and walking unhurriedly to his new motorcycle. In voiceover, Satyaveer tells us that his own life is as arid and uneventful as his hometown Lakhot. The place goes unnoticed by the outside world for most of the year, he says, making news only in the height of summer when hundreds of people die because of the extreme heat, and in the height of winter, when an equal number die because of the cold.

This sequence is the first of many reminders that film noir doesn’t have to be all about dark shadows or smoky black-and-white cinematography. The nighttime here (noir being French for “black”) is principally the nighttime of the soul and, as we’ll soon see, some very dark transactions can occur in the Rajasthani desert in blinding sunlight. The film’s trajectory is from small transgressions to increasingly serious crimes, and no one is innocent. For starters, it’s implied that Satyaveer’s new bike was purchased with ill-begotten money. He has been suspended by the department for taking a “commission” (everyone does it, but he was silly enough to get caught) and now he’s sitting at home with his wife and their little son, waiting for the result of the inquiry – and waiting also for the muse to strike so he can write another pulp detective novel, which is what he does in his spare time.

But a junior engineer taking bribes is a minor, almost feeble misdeed compared to other things that are going on in the area.
Things start to escalate when a woman who says she’s the wife of a powerful local minister asks Satyaveer to play detective himself and bring evidence that her husband is cheating. By the time he discovers she was faking her identity, he’s already caught in a labyrinth of deception and counter-deception that resembles not only the plot of Chinatown but briefly nods at Antonioni’s Blow-Up as well. (Some shots also reminded me of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, with the severed ear in the ground and the suggestion of a tranquil surface hiding unsavoury things.) Circumscribed small-town lives, corrupt politicians and cops, social workers with their own agendas, femme fatales, chuckling goons who enjoy bantering nearly as much as breaking people’s fingers – all these elements soon come together with deadly results.

This is a confident, accomplished film. My one reservation (not counting a couple of minor, ignorable loopholes in the plot) is that it’s self-consciously slow-paced in places – occasionally suffering from what I’ve come to think of as a hangover from the made-for-Doordarshan features of the early 1980s: characters enunciating sentences more solemnly than strictly required, and with many Significant Pauses. Also, the big fish/little fish/small pond imagery is slightly overdone (it requires suspension of disbelief too; I kept wondering why so many people would have large aquariums in a town that has serious water-supply problems). But the script and performances are good throughout. Abhay Deol is proving to be one of the more interesting actors of his generation and his performance as Satyaveer is the least starry you could possibly imagine from a Deol. He’s the picture of the small-town everyman, getting by from one day to the next, convinced that he is meant for better things but not sure where the break is coming from – and eventually, not driven enough to worry too much about it. Gul Panag is good as his wife and the ubiquitous Vinay Pathak has a grand old time as his brother-in-law, a foul-mouthed cop whose personal motto “Zaraa si saavdhani, zindagi bhar aasani” (“A little precaution makes life easy”) derives from a condom ad jingle but soon acquires more sinister connotations for Satyaveer.

One thing I liked was the film's refusal to neatly tie up all its loose ends - it leaves us in the dark about a couple of plot details. Without disclosing too much, there’s an unnerving late scene when a peripheral character (about whom we know almost nothing) bursts into morbid laughter and it's left to the viewer to fill in the gaps. There’s also a question mark around the background and motivations of a woman named Sheetal (Raima Sen), who becomes Satyaveer’s confidante when his wife is out of town. All this adds to the ambiguity and discomfort that are so vital to this genre; we come away with the sense that there’s more going on than has been revealed to us – though, equally importantly, what has been revealed is sufficient to satisfy the curiosity of a viewer who’s watching the film as a straightforward detective yarn.

P.S. DVDs of many Hindi films have started including special features now, which is a welcome (and overdue) trend, and one that is particularly well-suited to films like Manorama Six Feet Under. There’s a “making of” feature (which I haven’t seen yet) on this DVD, as well as a few deleted scenes, at least two of which I thought should have been left in the film. Also, I like the imagination and flair shown in the film’s publicity material – for instance, the poster of four of the main characters standing inside what looks like a miniature model of the town, with serrated boundaries; the publicity still (not a scene from the film) of Satyaveer being lowered, head first, into a grave; and best of all, the poster that’s broken up to look like a jigsaw puzzle of photographs.


  1. I agree. And, Abhay Deol is probably one of the most interesting actors today, and not just from the Deol family.
    Only, the sometimes-too-slow pace of the film got to me often.
    Gul Panag was pretty good too, I thought. Vinay Pathak was brilliant, as always.

  2. Aha so there do exist people other than me who have actually seen this movie.

    I watched this one in one of the multiplexes and the person with whom I was waching gave up forever on my taste in movies.

    I liked the movie through and through, my only complaint was with the soundtrack. A movie that is shot in the desert one has scope for an excellent one, but then again that might have been asking for too much.

  3. Aanchal: yes, my wife has been drum-beating for Abhay Deol for some time now. I thought it was creditable that he took on a role as unobtrusive as this one - it's not an author-backed part at all, and difficult to do justice to.

    so there do exist people other than me who have actually seen this movie...

    Nightwatchmen: and here I was thinking it was among the best-reviewed films of the year! In fact, I almost felt sheepish about watching it so many months after it released (had my first chance at the Cinefan festival in July but missed it then). But yes, it played in theatres for something like 5 days, so can't think of it as a widely seen movie.

  4. I loved the dialogues in it. They are written by Anurag Kashyap's brother, iirc.

    And Kulbhushan Kharbanda has got some of the most terrific lines, besides Vinay Pathak.

  5. I went to watch this movie after I missed Ek Chalis ki last Local. I thought Abhay Deol's movie would definitely be hatke. Very good movie and perfect casting! Even the slow pace didn't make me lose interest in the movie. The title suggested some kind of a murder mystery but the plot was quite intriguing and unpredictable. Smart titling!

  6. Wakey wakey Mr Reviewer, for a cine-fan you certainly need to smell the coffee sooner. Now look what's happened, the film will take longer to whip up a cult following becuase of your delay.

    Rotten review, IMHO.

    PS --any others you want to educate us heathen on ? BTW, this film has been viewed and appreciated and can do without your condescension !

  7. Muhaafiz: I thought the screenplay was by Navdeep SIngh and Devika Bhagat?

    Anon: for FSM's sake, it's still only January - I can't possibly start collecting material for my year-end comments list already! Do consider re-posting around July.

  8. Jabberwock,
    Superb notes on the film. I really enjoyed this film. Very well written (superb dialogue), so wonderfully evoking the mood of its setting, well enacted, this was a real treat. Vinay Pathak was brilliant, as usual.

    You make a great point about the film's refusal to neatly tie up all its loose ends. I just loved the way it just "leaves us in the dark," as you put it.
    But, in a way, it also set me up for a truly "revelatory" climax, for the lack of a better expression; not (at all) in the sense of revealing some truth towards the end, but climaxing on a revelatory note with respect to the spirit and the motifs of the film. In that vein, the denouement did come off as a bit of cop-out for me too (not sure if I'm putting it appropriately, but it was as if they had run out of ideas).

    By the way, the film is "screen-written" (the story and screenplay, that is) by Navdeep Singh and Devika Bhagat, but the dialogue is written by Abhinav Kashyap and Manoj Tapadia.

  9. Zero: yes, on Ultrabrown.com a commenter pointed out that many noir films of the last two decades have copped out from a truly cynical ending - examples being L A Confidential and the Coen Brothers' Blood Simple (though neither of those had any sort of equivalent for the final rain scene in this one!).

  10. Jai, wonderful analysis of the film , I just watched the movie for the first time on Monday the 28th of this month ,after hearing a lot about it.It is a superb movie ,well acted and well directed. The small town depiction is brilliant and Abhay Deol has played the role exactly like a small town common man with a languid air about him.

    In fact you can even sense the langourous mode of 'Satyaveer' even when investigating the case. The movie sits easy on the eye and I must say that Vinay Pathak is one of the best actors we have today. His rendition of 'Jijae' had me in splits even though it was said with a poker straight face.

    It is surprising and quite a pleasing coincidence that having just watched the movie and pondering why it was not promoted more , I see you posting a review as soon as I visited your Blog.

    Also it is a stark comment on our cinema that many mediocre talents have been promoted just due to their lineage than ability.

  11. Thanks for the write up.

    About the end. It was endlessly debated; how bleak do we make it? Finally a bitter-sweet sort of compromise was reached.

    However here's a take that I used to jokingly console myself with; Ram Swarup (The pink taxi driver) is the angel of death. The first time he gives SV a lift it's a near-death experience since he drops SV home. The second time (The station being some sort of way-station to Hades) SV is dead having been killed by Rathore. As are Nimmi and Raju.

    Yeah, I know it's a stretch but...

  12. Shwet: good observation about Vinay Pathak's poker-face. It would have been so easy for an actor to over-perform this role, or to showboat for the mass audience.

    Navdeep: good to see you here. A happy ending with Abhay and Gul in a rain-soaked Hades - that's an interesting take! I must admit the bits with the pink taxi sort of went over my head, though they added to the intriguingly unresolved feel of the film, which I mentioned in the post.

    Looking forward to your future work.

  13. A really interestingly made film: even including a fish called Shakuntala!

  14. The pink taxi was just a quirk ostensibly reflecting the fact that everyone has their own agenda (legit or otherwise).
    A question; which are the two deleted scenes that you would have kept?

  15. Navdeep: actually I thought nearly all of them were quite good: the scene at the library (including the shot of the Hindi edition of India Today with Pandher on the cover, which was a nice little touch - the banality of evil etc) and Gul Panag in the beauty parlour (another nice glimpse of small-town life). But in particular the scenes involving the bioscope, with the little boy paying for his curiosity.

  16. Not a good movie.Socha na tha was better.

  17. Hi Navdeep ...I am happy to find you here. I just happened to see this movie yesterday. Honestly I was blown away. Keep up your fantastic work dont see a reason why this should not be a part of my DVD collection ...I liked the piece where Abhay and Raima stare thru the aquarium while the song tere sawalon ka plays on. The moment they share is captured so brilliantly...loved it. Gul panag was awesome really apprecited her portrayal. OVERALL BRILLIANT PIECE OF CINEMA!!!!