(Parineeta and Batman Begins)

A week ago, we published a review of Parineeta on this blog that was almost overwhelmingly positive. Some readers (such as yours truly) may have therefore been suckered into watching the film, in the hope of finally getting to see that elusive miracle – an INTELLIGENT Hindi movie. For those of you who have escaped this horrible fate, allow me to offer a word of warning: do not watch Parineeta; you’re liable to have a more exciting time sitting at home watching the laundry drying on your washing line!

Because a complete wash-out is precisely what (in my far from humble opinion) Parineeta undoubtedly is. The plot is inane, the emotions banal and the characters have all the depth and finesse of mirrors in airport rest rooms. The music is derivative but relatively harmless, the sets and costumes opalescent in a sickly-sweet way and the acting, when it occassionally occurs (the Balan woman is not bad, I admit, but Sanjay Dutt looks like he has termites running through his veins, and Saif Khan, though a classic Bengali beauty in his own right, proves once again that he can’t really act) is mediocre. As for the movie being a tribute to Calcutta it’s a Calcutta without football or politics (this is the early 1960s, remember – we’re about to go to war with China, the Communist Party is splitting into two, but these facts have clearly escaped the film-makers’ notice) or poverty or visa issues (anyone can just decide to fly out to London whenever they like) or any real culture except for the one mandatory reference to Tagore. I can’t really judge, of course, (I’ve spent all of three days in the city, and two of those were after enjoying the largely liquid hospitality of IIMC, so that my memories of the place include the odd pink elephant) but it seems to me that if you just cut out the odd footage of the city and replaced the clamouring for Fluries with clamouring for say Chaat at Karol Bagh and the Kali dances with some Bhangra, you’d have a movie that could just as well have been set anywhere else (I mean are you seriously telling me that that’s exactly what a traditional Bengali wedding is like? come on).

What I chiefly objected to, though, was the complete lack of an intelligent script. Given that I’ve always had a fair deal of respect for Sharat Chandra I’d be interested to know how much the movie actually deviates from the novel (a lot I suspect). I mean is it really true that in Calcutta women will sleep with you if you just put a chain around their necks at the right time? How do I get me one of those? And am I actually expected to a) relate to some twerp who spends his life writing mediocre pop tunes and fantasising about being Elvis while he lives in his parent’s house and off his parent’s money b) feel sympathy for someone who owns a beautiful old mansion / estate but can neither manage it himself nor hire a decent lawyer to help him c) admire a woman who stays at home faking a headache because the man she secretly loves shouts at her and gets upset if she goes out and has fun by herself or d) believe in a big-shot industrialist who goes around the world buying steel plants but spends his vacations in some Calcutta back-alley with his half-wit sister playing cards (and actually enjoys something as hideous as the Moulin Rouge depicted in the film; I mean, hello, the hottest woman there is REKHA!!). I won’t even go into how dumb I think the end is – that much at least other people have already admitted. The only good thing I can find to say about the whole thing is that it’s so incredibly silly in parts that I actually found myself laughing out loud (see, for instance, the scene where Saif and what’s her name are wrapped in a supposedly passionate embrace – have you ever seen anything more artificial? like some twelve year old’s idea of sex)

Bottomline: Parineeta is a bland, meandering and ultimately pointless movie featuring the incredibly obvious and totally unsurprising love affair between two fundamentally uninteresting and spoilt young people about whom the best that can be said is that they deserve each other.

It says a lot, therefore, about how terrible Batman Begins (the other movie I watched this weekend) is that watching it I actually found myself comparing it to Parineeta and not always favourably. The two movies have a lot in common actually. Both feature sons of super-rich business tycoons who are in love with their childhood sweethearts, keep pianos in their bedrooms in case of emergencies and are struggling not to go over to the dark side (a fate from which they will be saved by the power of True Love). Both have people dressed in outlandish costumes pretending to be normal, everyday people. Both end with considerable damage being done to buildings, walls, etc, while the main protagonists finally learn to step out of their father’s shadow. Both feature random trips to the mysterious East to meet with caricatures with bad accents (Bruce Wayne’s trip includes learning mysterious ninja arts in a monastery while spouting platitudes about guilt, justice and responsibility; Shekhar’s involves singing bubblegum love ballads while riding a train before confronting a prospective bride who is easily the scariest and most inhuman character across both movies). Both have plots of incredible flimsiness (I can’t decide which is worse – a couple who gets married because they happen to exchange chains at a certain time or a plot to destroy Gotham that involves an oversize microwave and a gas that is scary, because, well, it scares people; no really, that’s what it does; honest!). Both feature couples who are ultimately unconvincing as lovers (though to be fair the complete woodenness of both Katie Holmes and Christian Bale makes Saif and Vidya’s tepid romance look like something out of the steamier home life of Antony and Cleopatra). Both operate primarily through cliche and caricature – substituting surface effect for actual substance. And both are therefore gross travesties of what they stand for or could have stood for (Parineeta of the lost art of sensitive, intelligent and realistic Bengali film making; Batman Begins of that greatest of all superhero movies – the original Batman).

On the whole, I think Batman Begins is worse. Partly this is because of the incredible amount of talent it thoughtlessly wastes – the cast includes Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, Liam Neeson and Gary Oldman! It’s not that the performances by these people are bad (though Liam Neeson is woefully miscast as a megalomaniacal super-villian; I mean really!), on the contrary, it’s precisely that their inherent brilliance shines through even in so fundamentally hostile a setting, so that the overall effect is like sterilising a bath tub with fine single malt whisky. Just watching the class that Freeman (to take just one example) brings to his third-rate role and awkward, lifeless dialogue is enough to make you cry. What were these people thinking? Are they that hard up for money? From that perspective, both Bale and Holmes are refreshing – since they clearly can’t act anyway, you feel that they deserve the roles they’ve ended up with.

The other reason that Batman Begins is such a sacrilege is because it takes one of my favourite comic book characters and totally ruins him. Maybe it’s just me, but Batman has always been my favourite superhero. In part this is because his ‘powers’ aren’t really superhuman at all – it’s not like he has some strange genes or dropped in from another planet and therefore can’t help being who he is (I mean what’s so great about being a superhero if bullets bounce off your chest anyway). In part it’s because he’s the darkest (and therefore to my cynical mind the most realistic and exciting) of the superheroes. Superman is a sickeningly All-American muscle-bound twit (the kind of superheroes high school football stars and cheer leaders can relate to) and Spiderman is just an adolescent with slightly exaggerated issues. It’s only Batman who begins to approach the Nietszchian ideal of the Superman: an angst ridden post-modern warrior, a superhero for the thinking man, who sees the abyss of choice and the existential reality of action and judgement. The great achievement of the original Batman movie was precisely this – it made Batman an ambiguous, almost fearful presence, a superhero you could admire but not really be friends with, an angry, tormented and often cruel soul, for whom crime fighting was a challenge and a thrill rather than a moral imperative and who was, at times, almost indistinguishable from the enemies he fought. Batman Begins destroys this myth – it tries to humanise Batman, not realising that there are those of us who don’t want him to be human and feeling and as sentimental as the next guy.

There are other flaws in the movie of course. The dialogue lacks punch (the only thing more stilted I can think of is the dialogue in Revenge of the Sith, which sets a new low for clunkiness of spoken word), the action sequences are shot too close up and too fast, with the result that they’re un-engrossing, and for what is essentially an action movie the pace is almost excruciatingly slow.

Overall, then, I left the theatre having watched Batman Begins with pretty much the same feeling as I’ve left the last three Batman movies with – the fervent prayer, that, after this at least, Hollywood will be content to let well enough alone.