Monday, 26 October 2015

BFI London Film Festival 2015 (Part 2)

In this article I will review the second film in my BFI London Film Festival 2015 experience; Beeba Boys (Mehta) and give you an overview of the extras and ambiance of this exciting gala.

  Beeba Boys (Mehta, 2015)
Starring: Randeep Hooda, Ali Momen, Sarah Allen, Waris Ahluwalia
Country: Canada
Language: English
Runtime: 103 mins

I was super pumped going into this one, maybe more so than any of the other films that I had planned to see during the festival. After watching the trailer as put out by the Toronto International Film Festival, where it debuted in September, I was really eager to get stuck in to what promised to be a really unique and vibrant experience; an Indo-Canadian gangster film.
Deepa Mehta, a female director (in keeping with the BFI's theme this year of women in cinema), is a big fan of the gangster genre. Her plan here was to present us with an Indo-Canadian narrative in a genre saturated by Italian-American stereotypes; a great idea!
Set in present-day Vancouver, Beeba Boys, literally meaning "good boys" (Goodfellas) a nod to Martin Scorsese's 1990 masterpiece, follows Jeet Jahar, played by Randeep Hooda, loosely based on Indian-born gangster Bindy Johal who operated in British Colombia in the 1990s.
The gala kicked off with a special guest appearance by the "Bad Man" of Bollywood Gulshan Grover, here playing "kingpin" Robbie Grewal who faces off against younger rival Jeet. This was a really nice touch and it was awesome to get some insight from someone so heavily involved. He described how, as a female director, Mehta brought something quite unique to the gangster genre in as much as it was intended to be a much more emotional response; we were to see how every bullet and every killing directly affected the girlfriends and the families of the young men involved. He also explained that she directed him to play the role of the kingpin, first and foremost, as a familyman as grounded in punjabi culture.
After ten mins or so of questions posed to Grover, where he explained many aspects of production including how Mehta had drawn from the style of both Scorsese and Tarantino, as well as a Bollywood look for the costumes (all very clear in the movie), the film began. 
I won't go into the intricacies of the plot too much out of respect for those of you who want to go and see it (it's out now I believe), however I will just give you an overview of my likes and dislikes.
First of all I will say that this film didn't deliver on all accounts, and for me, trying and failing to bring home any deeper meaning to a hyper-violent plot, it was a definite case of style over substance. Now this isn't to say that I didn't leave the cinema as excited as I went in; let's be clear, I really, really enjoyed this film and recommend that you go and see it!
Stylistically I loved it; the colours, the costumes, the music, all that it borrowed from Bollywood, and sikh tradition in general, was amazing. It offered something very different to those not used to Indian cinema and culture. Seriously, it looked and sounded incredible!
Another aspect I really liked was the interesting use of camera movement, whether this was drifting dreamily down the side of a building in order to establish a scene or framing a shot from underneath a staircase our characters were climbing. Some may have found these approaches a little distracting but I thought they were a really refreshing contrast to established filming techniques.
The film should also be commended for bringing an otherwise unknown issue to light; I, and I am sure many others, had no idea that young Indo-Canadian men have been caught up for many years in a cycle of gangland violence. If nothing else Beeba Boys has educated me on, although I'm sure also slightly glorified, a subject that I knew nothing about and that can never be a bad thing. 
Beeba Boys largely falls down in regard to character development, which is a shame after all the big talk of allowing us a rare emotional approach to the gangster genre.
The problem is that most of the characters are interchangeable. At the start of the film we get some handles for each of the boys eg The Muscle, The Joker, Lovely etc. There are a few problems with this; to begin with it is like for Mehta this is enough for the audience to simply be told what type of characters they are watching rather than revealing aspects of them through nuanced development. This means that we are thinking about them in a rather cardboard cut-out type way from the get-go; simply as one-dimensional archetypes rather than complex characters. Once the audience has been told who each of the boys is meant to be the plot then moves forward with each of them acting in exactly the same manner anyway (safe in the knowledge that we understand that this guy is The Joker, the other is Lovely etc...). This is not really the idea behind visual storytelling.
The main character, Jeet, is seriously unlikable, in fact most of the characters are, this makes it difficult to engage with or invest in any of them. If you think of Scarface (De Palma, 1983), we understand that Tony Montana is an arsehole but we still like him and connect with him on some level through the brilliant character development, here it is almost impossible. This is a big problem.
We never really buy the romance between Jeet and his Polish girlfriend Katya (Sarah Allen) either; what is it they see in each other exactly other than sheer attraction? If that's all it is it's frustratingly cynical.
And although the little interjections of family life and issues in regards to Jeet's mother and son offer a fresh dimension they are just clumsily out of place in this kind of narrative, and just seem weird. It's seriously distracting when you are watching a gangster film and the main character's mum keeps asking about his washing...
Now after making these points I will say that I really enjoyed Waris Ahluwalia's portrayal of Manny the Joker. This was my favourite performance of the film, we still didn't manage to really establish a connection with him on any human level but at least it felt like he was really making the role his own and bringing something a little different in contrast to the other characters who, as I said, were largely interchangeable in my opinion. I have heard the script, which has had a very clear Tarantino influence, and in particular Manny's jokes criticised in other reviews. I took the fact that his jokes never quite land as being an essential aspect of his character rather than bad writing. He is clearly a weird guy with an odd sense of humour, even his crew seem to find his constant gags a little fatiguing, with them completely going over some of their heads. There were certainly areas of the script that could have done with revision, for example Jeet being compared to Megatron, but for me this wasn't one of them.
There is a relationship which develops between Nep (Ali Momen), a kind of double agent character, and Choti (Gia Sandhu), the daughter of Grewal the kingpin, which is actually really interesting and begins to develop into something of real emotive drama.
There is also a conversation that Jeet has with his father towards the end in regards to how he and other Indians were treated on arrival in Canada and again this starts to actually build some geniune layered storytelling. It's a shame that there weren't more of these real heartfelt moments throughout.
After all the criticism I did still really enjoy this movie, there were some absolutely classic gangster film moments that have to be witnessed! This film did really well in setting up expectations, slowly building the tension of a scene in a way that we can see exactly where it is heading and suddenly hitting us with something so much worse than we had imagined! I can think of at least three really hardhitting scenes where this was the case, and one occasion where I started to experience a mild panic attack due to the long drawn out anticipation! 
I would definitely recommend catching Beeba Boys on the big screen for the cinematic experience, just know going in that you aren't going to get some real deep thought-provoking narrative no matter how hard it tries.

Coming soon - Brooklyn review!