Tuesday, September 15, 2009
CHAMKU (Hindi; 2008)
The first sequence gets you. It's aboard a train -- as so many of the best action sequences are -- and Bobby Deol, his hands bound, is being escorted to an unidentified gangster, along with a young woman supplied from Varanasi for the gangster's pleasure. Her bright-red shalwar qameez simply underscores her nervousness; not the the gangster cares, pulling her to him even as he yells at his men to kill Deol's character and throw him off the train. At that point, a cell-phone -- within the woman's brassiere -- rings, and all hell breaks loose, as the narrow passages of the train erupt in gunfire and good ol' action. Can't keep a hero down, even with his hands bound.
The hero is Bobby Deol, looking better than he ever has, and shrewdly cast in a taciturn role that doesn't feature much dialogue, namely that of Chamku, the son of a farmer from Bihar's badlands. After he is brutally orphaned by the evil thakur Mahendra Pratap Singh, little Chamku is taken in by a Naxalite commander (Danny Denzongpa), and grows up to be the latter's right-hand man. Assassinating a local politician in the midst of a lewd Holi song? No problem. Unfortunately for Chamku, arrest means encounter death for the entire cadre; Chamku himself only survives because he's the hero, and can;t possibly be felled by a few bullets. He comes to in the hospital, only to find himself face to face with the sinister Mr. Kapoor (Irfan Khan), making him an offer he can't possibly refuse: a position on a "dirty squad" being formed by the Indian government's intelligence agencies to carry out all sorts of nefarious acts within the country. While Chamku doesn't exactly throw himself into the job with glee, his world is thrown into turmoil, first by the sight of schoolteacher Shubhi (Priyanka Chopra) -- in the sort of sari-blouse that ensures full attendance by the class -- and second, by a chance encounter with the evil thakur, who seems to have made the transition from backwater oppressor to Mumbai builder with great ease. As the New York Lotto line goes: Hey, you never know.
The story is improbable -- or, more accurately, a tale that begins with a promise of a realistic depiction of some of India's seamier realities, ends up flirting a little too intensely with the sort of masala mash that needs commitment from the word go in order to be convincing -- but the director is Kabeer Kaushik (of Seher (2005) fame), which guarantees that Chamku is suffused with a seriousness of tone and purpose that belies the outlandish plot. And if the film doesn't live up to its early promise, it nevertheless remains the best Bobby Deol film you've never seen. And that's just wrong: Kaushik's sophomore effort is never less than engaging, principally because of his splicing of a routine narrative by means of several time shifts; and his superb use of Bobby Deol in what has to be the man's best action outing; and a nonchalantly evil turn by Irfan Khan, who represents a kind of bureaucratic evil. Irfan's Kapoor doesn't appear to be animated by patriotism, love, hatred, etc. -- he (and his boss, played by Rajendra Gupta) just want(s) the job done. Other Hindi films have featured corrupt government agents -- but Kaushik's film is the first to evoke a "system" that is steeped in immoral ruthlessness, that views itself as entitled to transgress its own laws in its own land. Seher was unquestionably the more gripping film, but Chamku pushes the envelope further. I wish I had seen it earlier.
A word about the cinematography: Gopal Shah's work is strongest in enclosed public places -- trains, crowded malls, alleys -- and he clearly loves focusing on his hero negotiating these spaces. It's a solid effort, but interesting enough to warrant better projects than the likes of Heroes (2008). The music director is Monty (of Saawariya (2007) fame), and while old-school Holi songs and item numbers aren't his natural element, he gamely tries, resulting in some energetic music (heck, there isn't much other Holi music to go with, so I'll certainly go with the catchy Gola Gola). The real standout is the restrained Dukh ki Badri -- while not a match for Saawariya's Daras Bina Naahi Chain, Kalpana, Shail Huda, and Parthiv Goel, infuse this folkish track with genuine feeling, and a gravitas that stays with the listener.