Monday, May 06, 2002

On Sunday, saw Govind Nihalani’s film Deham—adapted from Manjula Padmanabhan’s play Harvest. Someone had called it India’s first science fiction film. Well, then I must add that it’s not really a promising start for Indian SF.

The worst part of the film is probably the truly cheesy special effects. Set in Mumbai in the year 2022, the scenario of the film calls for some futuristic sets and props. What is provided here is utterly inadequate and amateurish. Whether it is fair to judge the FX here against those we are used to see in the billion-dollar extravaganzas churned out by Hollywood is another question. My opinion is that Nihalani should have either learnt a few lessons from those American film-makers who have stretched a tight budget decently (John Carpenter’s Dark Star springs to mind), or kept the project aside until he’d got hold of the required resources.

But, even aside from the effects, Nihalani surprised me by making such a silly film from a highly acclaimed play. I suppose Ms Padmanabhan will not blame Nihalani for ruining her play, because she shares the screenplay credit. Anyway, this confused ‘high-concept’ hodgepodge failed to showcase the brilliance the judges of the Onassis Prize saw when they awarded the 1997 prize to her play. (The credits even mention the prize.)

The film is photographed by the director himself, and even there Nihalani does little justice to his reputation gained through his pioneering role in the Indian ‘parallel cinema’ movement. (He was the cinematographer for Shyam Benegal’s Bhumika, a personal favourite of mine.) The only interesting stuff in Deham is a very short sequence of shots of the crowded chawls of Mumbai early in the film, and then a beautifully shot shower scene with actress Kitu Gidwani towards the end of the film (and even this latter seems ultimately like a soap commercial)—the rest of the cinematography is bland and unremarkable. The music too is devoid of class, sounding mostly like Kenny G trying to play seriously.

Nihalani’s earlier film Drohkaal was terrific—a truly tense thriller with all-round brilliant performances. (Its high-profile remake into Tamil, starring Kamal Haasan, paled in comparison.) Because of this and because of the source material, one had high hopes for Deham. The film’s publicists also touted the NETPAC (Network for the Promotion of Asian Cinema) award for Best Asian Film it had won at some chhota European festival. But in the event Deham proved to be a profound disappointment. At least those silly SF movies turned out by Hollywood in the 1950’s with aliens in bear-suits would make one laugh—but the sombre Deham offered no such solace during its two dreary hours. One left the cinema with no immediate hope for a desi 2001: A Space Odyssey or Blade Runner.slfr