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Aspiring polymath since 1982

The Merchant-Ivory Reviews

I had written in a previous post about joining a new DVD subscription service started by the Reliance conglomerate called Bigflix. One of the main attractions for me was that there collection seems to have a good smattering of what is called “world cinema”. Though euro-centric, it’s great to be able to watch the complete Merchant-Ivory oeuvre or that of Ingmar Bergman without having to wait for an annual film festival or trying to score copies from friends and family or the friendly neighborhood bootlegger. After watching my first Merchant-Ivory film “The Perfect Murder”, it struck me that what better way to sum up the experience then watching all of the Merchant-Ivory films available at Bigflix and reviewing the movies as well as my reactions to them.

I will be updating this post with the movies as and when I have finished watching them, so I guess this post will keep getting bigger (after all, there are 30-odd movies under the Merchant-Ivory banner). So here goes.

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The Perfect Murder

The DVD blurb calls it a crime caper set in Mumbai based on the award-winning novel by H.R.F Keating. Inspector Ghote, the main character in the movie is an earnest yet ineffectual Mumbai cop, deferential to seniors and people in power such as politicians and big businessmen just like others of his ilk. The film starts off by following Inspector Ghote at his botched attempt to catch a member of a prominent diamond smuggling ring. From the get-go it becomes obvious that Inspector Ghote, the movie as well as the characters are just Indianized versions of the Pink Panther series. Inspector Ghote as the Indian Inspector Closeau.

This would be all fine and well if the capers were up to the same level of those in the Pink Panther but sadly, its far from it. Though the film does have some light moments, I do not think there is any certifiably “laugh-out-loud” moment in the movie. Maybe its because all the characters except for the Swedish Inspector Alex Svensson are Indian, and their reactions and dialogues can be surmised at, being an Indian myself. Secondly, I have not read the original book so I cannot comment on the screen adaptation of the story but is there a story? If there is one, i think its less than a few sentences in length based on what I have seen. This really brings down the movie as there is not much in terms of a plot at all.

There are some really good actors here but most of them are wasted because their characters are too cliched to be taken any seriously and most of them are given too little screen time to flesh out their characters in any way. The only exceptions to this are Naseeruddin Shah, Stellan Skarsgård and Amjad Khan who do get the required screen time. Naseeruddin Shah shines in this movie as Inspector Ghote but what were the other two thinking? Stellan Skarsgård spends most of the time in the movie behaving little more than a star-struck tourist and little as the Swedish criminologist he is supposed to be. Amjad Khan is wasted spouting inane dialogues such as “hubble-bubble” or “double-trouble” and Madhur Jaffrey? This film should have been called “Where in the world is Madhur Jaffrey”.

My last criticism about the movie is that it focuses too much on the Indian-ness of the characters and not at all on the plot. True, this is a caper based in India and therefore the characters have too reflect the quirks and idiosyncrasies of Indians and the country, but by focusing on it too much, the movie becomes more like a sociological documentary than a crime caper. Similarly, by focusing too much on the Indian setting (the proverbial Indian cow makes an important appearance) as a part of the plot, it reduces the whole film to a sly product placement move by the Indian Tourism Ministry.

The only enjoyable thing about the movie is the cinematography and the production which really makes settings shine. I don’t think I have ever seen a more colorful and vibrant representation of Mumbai on the screen or in real life and I live here! In this film, Mumbai and the Indian-ness of the characters can be called the star character of the movie instead of the human actors. At least for me, its what kept up my interest in the movie. For my first Merchant-Ivory viewing, I have to rate this as a damp squib. If this was brought out by Bollywood to tap the English market, I would have understood and not been so disappointed. Looking online, it seems that the Merchant-Ivory had little to do with this movie other than to underwrite it. It shows. Can be skipped.

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