After Aap Ka Surroor and Partner, I watched Anjan Dutt's Bow Barracks Forever! and was thoroughly frustrated. After two masala movies, with cliched dialogues, insane situations, lavish sets and dollops of thumkas, I suppose I wanted a film more in touch with reality. The premise of this picture promised as much, seeing as it's based on an Anglo-Indian community in a ramshackle, claustrophobic paada (dwelling)in Kolkata.
But it was not to be so. Kudos to Dutt for tackling a community-specific topic, and as a director he's in good touch, but its Dutt the screenwriter that lets the story down. He's chosen to depict people whose livelihoods are under threat if their building is taken over by real estate sharks. But Dutt doesnt etch out the characters well enough. Yes, he has a lot of them bus still, they're not meaty enough. We don't know why a few of them are the way they are. They're zombie shadows, either lolling in the background of a bustling city and the issues plaguing the tenants of this run down colonioal building, or they stumble through the odd cracks of positive cinema without giving their characters soul.
And, above all else, the characters are so, so stereotypical. The use of the word "man" becomes immensely irritating three minutes into the film. "What you doing, man?" "Eh what, man? Dont say that, man?" "Eh bugger, man!" Enough.
Some of the families depicted have been living in barracks - once a US army mess - for more than five generations. But they're stuck in some timewarp, depressingly pessimistic and decidedly schizophrenic. You'd be tempted to say thats because they're neither fully Indian nor white, but thats not the case. Its the plot and acting that makes it so.
Its a suffocating, claustrophobic piece of cinema. The scene where Bradley (an awful newbie, Clayton Rodgers) sings some hackneyed version of The Beatles' "I Saw Her Standing There" as a vague subplot emerges in the background, is annoying beyond reason. Why is the abusive Tom so horrible? And what about the pesky real estate sharks? Why are they dismissed as incompetents?
Dutt had at his disposal such veteran Bengali actors as Victor Banerjee, Moon Moon Sen and Rupa Ganguly, as well as Lillete and Neha Dubey, and the talented Sabyasachi Chakrabarty. But they are all let down, especially Sen and Chakrabarty, by poor narratives and hence they churn out poor performances.
As I sat through the film, I thought about all the English-language Indian movies I've seen. And I couldnt name one that I liked. Call me biased towards Hindi films if you like, but I havent been convinced by many English-language movie made in India. I'm not including Mira Nair, because she comes from a different background, Harvard-educated and what not. I did like Being Cyrus, and Deepa Mehta's 1947:Earth, though the latter had plenty of Hindi and Urdu in it. Nagesh Kukunoor's Hyderabad Blues was patchy, and his Rockford was too ambitious for its own liking. Rahul Bose sleepwalked through English, August. White Noise was terrible.
No matter how well Indians converse in English today, it looks awkward on screen. I dont think its just the actors; its more the poor writing. Everyone thinks in English nowadays, but the writing isn't up to standard.
Bow Barracks Forever! is another disappointing example of this. Sad.