Friday, 11 January 2013

Anjaane: The Unknown

Director: Harryy Fernaandes
Writer: Harryy Fernaandes
Producer: Sneh Mehta
Cast: Manisha Koirala, Sanjay Kapoor, Tejaswini Kolhapure
Country: India
Year of release: 2005
Reviewed from: UK DVD

The 2001 horror movie The Others was a Spanish-American-French co-production starring an Australian actress with a mostly British supporting cast and set, slightly bizarrely, on the Channel Islands shortly after they were liberated from German occupation. It was the last project that Tom Cruise (who produced) and Nicole Kidman worked on together before they broke up. Kidman played Grace Stewart, a widow whose two small children suffer from a photosensitive condition, requiring that they stay indoors with the curtains drawn at all times. An old man, a middle-aged woman and a mute young girl turn up out of the blue, claiming to be the gardener, housekeeper and maid who worked for the house’s previous owners and they are taken on but, at about the same time, Grace’s daughter starts seeing a family of ghosts - the ‘others’ of the title - including a little boy. The Others was directed by Alejandro Amenabar whose previous film Open Your Eyes was remade by and starring Cruise as Vanilla Sky. Just to make the production that little bit more international, ‘Spanish’ director Amenabar is actually from Chile.

Advance publicity for The Others was secretive to an extraordinary degree, keen to stress that this was not just a straightforward ghost story and the little girl’s supernatural ‘friend’ was not actually a ghost. There was obviously some big twist in the plot: what could it be?

I was asked by Fangoria to interview two of the supporting cast: Elaine Cassidy (who played the maid) and a pre-Doctor Who Christopher Eccleston (who played Grace’s husband). When I saw that the gardener was played by the living legend that is Eric Sykes I immediately got on to Tony at Fango asking if I could interview him as well - and much to my joy this was duly arranged. However, these were three of the trickier interviews I have ever done because we couldn’t actually talk about the film - you know, the thing we were supposed to be talking about. I hadn’t seen the film, the actors hadn’t seen the film, no-one had yet seen the film. Furthermore, the actors were under contractual obligation to not discuss any aspect of the plot so, for example, Eccleston could not tell me whether his role as a widow’s husband was a dream, a flashback, a ghost or whatever. Even though Fangoria faxed me through the movie’s publicity materials, these basically gave the same scanty plot synopsis that is in my first paragraph above.

So: none of us had seen the film and the interviewees couldn’t tell me what little they knew about it from the script. But hey, I’m a professional and I rose to the challenge. I like to think that the resulting article in Fango was actually one of the best I’ve ever done. The only sad thing was that, when I finally saw The Others at the cinema, the big secret turned out to be exactly what everyone expected it to be (or rather, what we all assumed it wouldn’t be because it was far too obvious). The Others proved to be an excellent film - atmospheric, spooky, beautiful to look at - with a central premise that is one of the hoariest clich├ęs in horror. In fact there was an Armchair Theatre production way back in 1970 that used exactly the same idea and was actually called 'The Others' so even the title was unoriginal.

Now, why am I telling you all this in a review of Anjaane: The Unknown? Because, my friends, this is the Bollywood version of The Others!

The same basic premise is there although obviously the setting has been changed from late 1940s Jersey to present day India. Nevertheless, Shivani (Manisha Koirala: Taj Mahal: An Eternal Love Story) lives along in a big house with two children who are sensitive to sunlight. But whereas the kids in The Others were withdrawn and pallid, clearly affected by their mother’s obsessive compulsive habit of keeping all doors locked at all times to prevent the encroachment of even the tiniest bit of sunlight, these two are full of vim. Manu and Tanvi are regular kids who love their mum and have great fun playing in the house which has, as its coolest feature, a slide from a first floor balcony down into a sandpit. The film’s first song - yes, of course it has songs - is performed by the two kids and features the memorable chorus “Mummy cool cool / Mummy cool cool / Mummy cool cool / Mummy cool cool.” During this sequence they are clearly seen outside.

Since it would not make sense in this context for Shivani’s husband Aditya (Sanjay Kapoor: Shakthi: The Power) to have been killed in a war, the reason he is not at home is... because he has been kicked out for having an affair. Aditya is introduced to us in a night-club dancing with the trampy Sonia (Tejaswini Kolhapure) and when Shivani finds them together she slings her husband out.

Then the three servants arrive. Instead of Fionnula Flanagan we have the single-monickered Helen (whose extensive career includes Mr India, Tarzan Comes to Delhi and Golden Eyes Secret Agent 077!) as Auntie, a sort of housekeeper-cum-nanny. That’s no problem. Instead of Eric Sykes we have Mushtaq Khan as Baba who may be a gardener but we’re never told this and we never see him gardening. And instead of Elaine Cassidy as the mute servant-girl we have Atul Purchure as Nandu, a character who may just be unfunny comic relief or may actually be intended to have learning difficulties.

The tubby, childish Nandu (who is sadly not mute) has a sort of double-act with Baba who constantly berates him and occasionally beats him a manner presumably intended to be hilarious. Still, at least they don’t sing.

Those of you who have seen The Others will know that one of the most memorable images was what appeared to be the little girl playing dress-up in a wedding dress but which turned out to be a ghostly old hag. Well, in Anjaane: The Unknown there is a similar who’s-in-the-wedding-dress sequence but it turns out to be Nandu, who is then beaten by Baba and locked in a shed, still wearing the dress. There is a moment of child dress-up when Manu puts on a Spider-Man costume, which is mildly interesting as there was a Spider-Man reference in Bhoot too. Perhaps he’s especially popular in India.

Back at the plot, it transpires that Sonia cannot have children so she plots to get custody of Shivani’s - and one sequence shows that Auntie is actually Sonia’s mother, working on her behalf, although this is never followed up in any way. Perhaps the idea is that Auntie is orchestrating the spooky happenings in the house (such as a burning painting falling from a balcony) in order to terrify Shivani and make her unsuitable, in the court’s view, to look after the children. But when Aditya discovers that Sonia wants the kids not for their sake but merely to spite Shivani in return for a slap she received when the lovers were discovered, he goes back home but cannot stay there.

Having got the musical soap opera stuff out of the way eventually, the film reverts to copying Amenabar’s movie. The curtains all disappear and the protesting servants are dismissed while the kids are put safely into a windowless room. There they are visited by Tanvi’s invisible friend (who is also called Nandu, leading to much non-hilarious confusion throughout the movie). Tanvi throws newspapers at where she claims Nandu to be and, when Shivani returns, she sees the horrible truth in one of these papers.

Photos of Aditya, Sonia, Auntie, Baba and Nandu attest to the fact that they all died in a car crash. Shivani finally realises that she and the kids are ghosts when invisible Nandu’s parents call in a medium and hold a seance. We have a flashback (I suppose) explaining what happened: Sonia won custody so Shivani committed suicide and killed the children, using poisoned milk. But the next day they awoke, apparently alive, except that their bodies were removed from the house while gawping neighbours gathered round. Eventually the ‘others’ (the subtitles translate ‘anjaane’ as ‘strangers’) leave the house with Shivani and her two children left to haunt the place.

It should be evident from the above that Anjaane: The Unknown removes every last shred of atmosphere and intrigue from the plot that it blatantly steals from The Others. But it replaces the good stuff not with fun or spectacle but with uninteresting soap conflict and bland song and dance numbers. The music is as uninspired as the choreography (and if the subtitles are accurate, the lyrics ain’t much better). If someone watched this without having experienced any decent Bollywood movies first, this would confirm all their prejudices I fear.

Anjaane completely fails to be one thing or the other: it’s not a horror film but it’s not a romance and certainly not a comedy. The kids are twee and irritating - although not as irritating as bloody Nandu - and the one and only decent musical number is the Aditya/Sonia routine in a night-club. Some of the songs don’t even fit into the story: everything just suddenly stops so that Aditya and Shivani, who were not together in the previous scene, can stiffly dance around an otherwise irrelevant location singing about how much they love each other, despite the characters currently being not only divorced but also (as we later discover) dead. It’s like the director and stars got bored every so often and put the film on hold to make a pop video.

Extraordinarily, this wasn’t even the first Bollywood rip-off of The Others as there was a version in 2004 called Hum Kaun Hai?, directed by Ravi Sharma Shankar. Judging by reviews and synopses on the web, this version sounds better than Anjaane.

Writer-director Harryy (sic) W Fernaandes hasn’t done anything else ever according to the Inaccurate Movie Database but in fact he worked in various capacities before Anjaane on films such as Lawrence D’souza’s Maahir, S Ramanathan's Pratikshah and Sudhakar Bokade's Nyay Anyay as well as TV shows including Dekh Tamasha Dekh. After Anjaane flopped miserably he turned to directing films in the minority language Bhojpuri although I can’t determine whether the announced-in-2007 Bhojpuri Bhaiya and Lage Raho Bhojpuri Bhaiya ever actually got produced.

One of the great things about Bollywood movies is often the credits. Anjaane starts with a dedication to the director’s parents: ‘To My Parents - Late Mr William Fernaandes (Simplex Woollen Mill, Dahisar), Late Mrs Philomena W Fernaandes (Mangalore, Barkur). I know U all R always with me, Harryy...’ It’s the need to identify which factory his father worked in that marks this out as such a fascinating culture, especially when combined with the text-speak ‘U all R’.

This is followed by four screens listing no fewer than thirty individuals and organisations/companies who receive ‘our sincere thanks’ and then a dedication from Dr Anil Mehta (‘Dedicated to my parents - Prakash, Deep’ with a photo). In fact the sleeve and posters and indeed the opening credits all describe this as Dr Anil Mehta’s Anjaane: The Unknown despite the fact that Anil Mehta has no actual on-screen credit. I suppose he was executive producer. There seems to be some confusion over Mehta’s identity as there is a well-known Bollywood cinematographer called Anil Mehta, who lit Lagaan, Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam and even a documentary about Toofani Tarzan star Fearless Nadia. However, he is not a doctor. This film’s chap is Dr Anil Mehta who runs an ayurvedic college in the Netherlands, is on the board of the Cine Global School of Acting and was producer of Jahan Tum Le Chalo. Someone called Sneh Mehta is the credited producer and the production company is Rishi Film International.

In western film credits the first crew member listed is traditionally the casting director but in India it is more common to start, as here, with the names of the publicity agents. I can never work out whether that is tradition or whether it’s just that the publicists get to decide the credits order and so give themselves pole position.

Visual effects are credited to Mukul Rawat, who also handled effects on Raaz, a 2002 Bollywood version of What Lies Beneath, as well as Vikram Bhatt’s Fear. Extraordinarily, he has a PhD in biochemistry and worked as a molecular biologist before changing career completely to become one of India’s leading special effects men with credits that also include Lagaan, Kaho Na Pyaar Hai, Sangharsh, Chor Machaye Shor, Gunaah and Talaash. He was the first person in India to use a motion control camera and he also created the TV series Captain Vyom.

Andalib Pathan gets the magnificent credit of ‘thrills’ by which I think they mean stunts. His other credits include Rajaji, Hum Dono and Hadh Kar Di Aapne. Rajan Kinagi (Hum Aapke Hain Koun...!, Bandhan, Gaddaar) was cinematographer; Ravinder Negi (director of the aforementioned Cine Global School of Acting) was production designer.

Harryy Fernaandes rather cheekily gives himself the credit ‘story, screenplay and directed by’ - the last two maybe but it’s not your story Harryy, it’s Alejandro Amenabar’s! The songs were composed by Himesh Reshmmiya (Taarzan: The Wonder Car - no, honestly - and big-budget SF thriller Dasavatharam) with lyrics by Sameer.

Anjaane was, by all accounts, a seriously damp squib at the Indian box office and I’m not even sure if it came out in the UK (many Bollywood films do - it’s just that they never get reviewed in mainstream magazines and newspapers). You can see why it failed: it shoehorns a completely inappropriate atmospheric ghost story into a standard Bollywood aesthetic and the two just do not fit together in any way. Add in some pretty rubbish songs and two crap child actors and you have a recipe for box office disappointment. Frankly I was disappointed and I got this for two quid off a market stall.

MJS rating: C-
Review originally written 22nd May 2008

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