Monday, January 16, 2012

The Businessman: A Review


Let me go on record to say The Business Man was not worth $15.  That is the most I have ever paid to watch a film.  I was told the high price was because it was a three-hour film, but the last three-hour Tollywood film I saw at this particular theater (Dookudu) cost me $9, which is the exact amount I pay for any other feature.  I think I got scammed.  Perhaps the theater chain was taking a page from the title character, a shifty crime lord who really has a master plan that would put both Don Corleone and Tony Montana to shame. 

I digress to say I don't know exactly why the same unnamed theater chain has an odd fixation and/or fascination with the films of one Mahesh Babu, but I figure when you get billed on screen as "Superstar Mahesh Babu", you carry a certain cache, even out in far West Texas.  The Business Man has the benefit of subtitles, which I understand is a rarity for Indian films.  At least we are now able to follow the plot more clearly, but on the whole I was surprised at how remarkably dark The Business Man was, thus giving false the idea that Tollywood (or Bollywood--I'm figuring only the location and language make them different) films are light, frothy affairs.

Into Mumbai (formely Bombay) comes Surya (Babu).  He comes at the most opportune time, given that the Mumbai Police Commissioner has broken the Mumbai Mafia.  Surya has not come to start a new life.  He's come to build a criminal empire.  By his sheer force of will he manages to bully everyone into doing his bidding and soon he becomes a powerbroker.  As part of his scheme, he romances the Commissioner's daughter, Chitra (Kajal Agarwal).  As usual in these films (or at least the two that I've seen), Chitra obviously falls in love with Surya, even after finding out he's not a rich kid like her best friend Ayesha (Ayesha Shiva) believes him to be, but a shady character.

Now, Surya has built his criminal empire, but it's a benevolent empire.  He tries to convince the Police Commissioner that his enterprise is actually good for Mumbai and India itself, giving ruffians and hoods something to do and away from the streets.  (To each his own I suppose).   He obviously doesn't see it that way, and is highly enraged that his daughter is now in love with Surya.  However, we learn within The Business Man that Surya isn't the amoral, cold, ruthless crime lord he appears to be (even if he does have a few song and dance numbers).  Instead, this quasi-Robin Hood style is just a reflection of his circumstances,  and this entire film is built around his desire to avenge his parents from when a powerful politician (one who is on the cusp of becoming Prime Minister of India) betrayed them so long ago. 

As is the case in these types of films (again, at least the two I've seen), plot is fulfilled, but while we have a sense of an ending (to coin a phrase), we don't get a happy one.  No big dance number to celebrate the union of two lovers, no joie de vivre at the completion of a successful master plan.  Instead, we get Surya telling the press (and the audience) that we should go for what we're after.

If anything sums up The Business Man's worldview, it is thus: "I believe in war, not morality" (which if memory serves correct, is spoken in English). 

I can applaud Babu and writer/director Puri Jagannath's desire to try to break the conventions of a Bollywood/Tollywood film by making a grittier, darker feature than the genre usually calls for.  For example, we don't get our first musical number (Mumbai) until we are well into The Business Man. Curiously, while we got the jist of the number (to be truthful I don't remember if the lyrics appears on screen), this first of five song-and-dance numbers takes advantage of the slum setting and appears, at least to this Westener's ears and eyes, to almost be a potential theme for Occupy Mumbai.  The number is a tough one, using the dirt of the street itself to have an almost angry style.

The other numbers range from the curious to the downright bizarre.  What I figure is the love song entre Surya et Chitra (Sir Osthata) does have a beautiful beach setting, but when we get images of dancing girls pixilated when it appears they are dressed in respectable bikinis one wonders why we are treated to such odd images.  The third spectacle musical moment (Pilla Chao), which I take to be his attempt to dismiss Chitra, has his backup dancers dressed in what appear to be Santa Claus coats. 

Perhaps the worst musical number was the second love/romantic song (Chandamama Navve).  It this sequence, Surya is singing his love to a clearly chlorofomed Chitra (who appears to still be slightly under the influence).  I should point out that this song-and-dance takes place AFTER one of his agents abducts her (I should clarify that she had hailed a taxi and the taxi driver was one of his agents, so it wasn't strictly speaking a snatch-and-grab).  I don't know exactly how one communicates passion to someone who is not completely conscious without it coming off as slightly creepy if not downright criminal (then again, they do it all the time in the Twilight films).

In terms of performances, I should congratulate Miss Shiva for providing what little comic relief there is in The Business Man.  I digress to say that the film does not have much if any lightness.  Instead, there is a great deal of heavyness almost bordering on nihilism to it.  So much time is spent on making Surya a loathsome character that when we do see beneath the veneer of toughness to see a damaged and hurt boy we really can't muster enough sympathy to feel much for him.  This is especially true to how he treats Chitra: a mix of braggadicio and bullying but not really communicating any real sense of love or even gentle romance. 

Granted, it stays within the image of Surya as a cold machine-like being, seeing everything (from one's relationship to God to romantic entanglements) purely in the terms of rational self-interest.  (WOW--an Indian follower of Ayn Rand with a criminal bent!).  However, one can't get any idea that Surya has genuinely fallen in love with Chitra instead of just using her to neutralize her father because he's always so harsh with her.  It also does make one wonder, given how he is with her, whether Chitra is either dumb or remarkably shallow. 

Here, again, I have to say that Babu shifted from his previous film of Dookudu.  Here, he's on the other side of the law, and it's a credit to his ability to make Surya into a semi-villain in his criminal undertakings and inability to see how killing a human is any different than killing a chicken for dinner.  He brings a cold ruthlessness to Surya, but there was a hint of emotion when discussing his lost years (down to the tears).  Whether it was a good thing or a bad thing that he was not allowed any light moments (either with Chitra or perhaps a clumsy sidekick for some comic relief) I leave up to his rabid fanbase.  He did well in the dance numbers, so it was entertaining in that respect, and the action scenes were at times almost Matrix-like, lending a slight air of exaggeration.

If anything about The Business Man looks strange, it is the subtitles.  Whoever worked on them made some curious choices, translating some words as "child hood", "dis belief", and "to wards" rather than "childhood", "disbelief", and "towards".   It was starting to take a life of its own, and while I normally support subtitles at times the white letters became unreadable when placed against a white background. 

I think that as a viewer, especially someone who doesn't know Tollywood or Bollywood all too well, The Business Man has a remarkably dark and bleak message that it becomes quite heavy.  It wasn't a bad film (and I won't argue about its length: these types of films almost always go two to three hours, with intermission).  However, while one can respect the desire to make a grittier, darker Tollywood/Bollywood film, it was not altogether a pleasure to do business with The Business Man


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