Tuesday, January 20, 2009


One of my unpublicized New Year's resolutions was to broaden my cinematic palate by exploring areas I had not approached before. One of my top priorities was to try some "Bollywood" movies, since the Albany Public Library has a growing selection of Indian titles. They're remarkably up to date, since Ram Gopal Varma's "underworld meets terrorism" drama was a Summer 2008 release in India, where it met mixed to bad reviews and disappointed at the box office. The trailer promotes it as the continuation of a series of underworld movies from Varma (or RGV, as Indian cineastes call him) dating back to 1998. Since its release, and in the aftermath of the all-too-real terrorist attack on Mumbai, Contract has probably acquired an unhappy resonance for Indian audiences. But the trailer, of course, can have no inkling of that.

Aman Malik is an Indian Muslim commando on an anti-terror mission. He confronts Sultan, a terrorist leader, who challenges him to explain why he's fighting and tells him that he's only obeying orders for no good reason while he, Sultan, is a truly free man. Aman doesn't have time for a comeback before an explosion stirs confusion through which Sultan escapes.

Aman retires from the service and lives happily with his wife and daughter. Toward Divyi, his wife, he's rather condescending. She doesn't understand why terrorists do what they do. He answers: "If you can't understand anything, why think about it and spoil your mood? Change the channel and watch MTV!" He rebuffs Ahmad Hussein, a visitor from the police who hopes to recruit him for an undercover operation. He wants Aman to infiltrate the criminal gang of "RD," who has ties to Sultan's terrorists. He wants a military man because he doesn't really trust anyone in the police. Also, Aman can identify Sultan. Aman says no.

In the very next scene, Aman's wife and daughter are blown up by a terrorist bomb at a temple. It's a double blast and Aman is away from the first explosion. His family survived the first round, and he can see his little girl holding out her arms for him before the second blast. That image haunts him through the rest of the film, while the girl's rendition of "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" morphs into some sinister lyrics that play over a montage of Aman training on the beach after he volunteers for Ahmad Hussein's mission. Here's a sample verse, as translated into English subtitles from the Hindi original.

Staying alive is a big problem.
Everything is an illusion.
The bird died after crashing into the building.
They will kill me after barging into my house.

The refrain is, "We should plant a bomb." I was hooked. Ahmad Hussein gives Aman a new identity (as Amaan Ali Yusuf), a criminal record, and a prison sentence. Ahmad's idea is that Amaan should get RD's attention by killing a prisoner that RD has so far been unable to touch from the outside, a minion of RD's great rival Goonga -- a buffoon who lives on a yacht so RD can't reach him. Amaan does the job with little trouble, with the desired result. He's taken out of prison by RD's lawyer, who we witness discreetly beating his wife for being slow about making coffee.

RD himself is a charmer. We see him torturing a prisoner and blaming his minions for the prisoner's death; they had not provided the proper voltage. One minion protests and strikes a karate pose, only to be told, "This is the age of Osama, not Bruce Lee." RD promptly puts Amaan to work on a reign of terror that ranges from gang hits to political assassinations. Feeling the heat, Goonga uses his pull with the police to recruit Dara, an "encounter specialist," i.e. a police hitman, to kill Amaan. Amaan gets word and ambushes Dara in his apartment. The pudgy killer manages to escape, but only after being chased naked through the streets until he can steal a sari off a mannequin. Made a laughingstock by the media, Dara is more determined to destroy Amaan, while the police issue a shoot-to-kill order against the mole.

Finally invited to meet RD face to face, Amaan is challenged by the karate guy, whose kung fu is very poor. His strikes have no effect, and Amaan beats him down while Iya, who we'll learn is RD's sister, watches with wary admiration. Soon after this, at about the one-hour mark, or halfway through the film, we have the closet thing to the stereotypical "Bollywood" musical number. The song is called Maula Khair Kare, and the refrain seems to be, "God, Be Kind."

A bloodbath ensues, with many pretty people mowed down by machine gun fire. The goons coming out from under the pier were recruited by Dara, who is soon captured, interrogated and killed by RD. During his time at the compound, Amaan has been rather casually keeping Ahmad Hussein up to date via cellphone in full view of anyone who happens to walk in on him. Karim, one of RD's flunkies, hits the jackpot, but some quick mayhem and a word of advice to Ahmad Hussein save the day and leave RD none the wiser. Iya demonstrates her affection for Amaan by helping him plan Goonga's death. She buzzes the yacht on a jet-ski and asks for a drink of water while Amaan, who has clung to the bottom of the jet-ski, makes his way on board the yacht to kill everyone but Goonga's shrewish wife, who has provided comic relief up to this point.

Now the word comes to meet Sultan in Mumbai, where the terrorist has some mischief planned. RD sends Amaan along, and Iya comes with him. Amaan feels compelled to confess to her that "I am the police's man." She seems too drunk to care, but he insists that she help him destroy Sultan. "If he is Allah's devotee," Amaan rages, then why does he plant bombs like a coward? Not Sultan, but I am Allah's devotee!"

Sultan has a surprise once everyone's gathered together. He knows there's a police plant in RD's gang because he's captured and tortured Ahmad Hussein. He also knows that RD and his gang have been massacred back at headquarters. Fortunately, Sultan buys the story that Karim, the flunky killed earlier, was the mole. Satisfied, he kills Ahmad, then regales Amaan with the gory details he hopes for from his next exploit. Sultan wants to blow up a school ("Death is better than wrong education") and a train station. He wants maximum women and children casualties, and the body parts had better go flying through the air. Then he wants to just call in a threat to a hospital, so the victims of the earlier attack won't be admitted. His amusement at this idea is the last straw for Amaan....

Every death is dear to harmony.
Our business is to kill.
Blood flows in the vein.
It's important to shed blood.

Subtitled lyrics from CONTRACT closing credits

I don't know from Hindi cinema. As I said, Contract seems to have been unpopular in India, but I was won over by its ghastly enthusiasm in portraying a practically amoral universe. There seems to be a Scorsese influence here, particularly in the exuberant ball-busting humor on Goonga's yacht, and The Departed is sound-sampled when Dara visits a movie theater. The musical aspect of the film seems better integrated from an American perspective than I first expected it would be. Apart from the Maula Khair Kare scene, most of the songs are done over music-video style montages, and they aren't the shrill wailing I feared. The music is overdone sometimes in dialogue scenes. Varma has a bad habit of overpunctuating important conversations with overdramatic musical cues. That occasionally made Contract reminiscent of bad TV, or even soap operas. Overall, however, I thought the director sustained dramatic momentum throughout, though the final shootout scene was rather ploddingly done. There's also a scene earlier (you can see it in the trailer) where I couldn't tell if Amaan was supposed to be running over someone with a motorcycle or if that someone had simply done a backflip to get out of Amaan's way.
I was entertained by Contract, but I don't know if that makes it a good film. Novelty value was a major part of its appeal for me, but my relative estimate of Varma's work may change after I see more Indian films. It might serve, given its resemblance to a more conventional American film, as a relatively painless first look at Indian cinema, or Indian crime cinema especially. It's accessibly exotic, but definitely just the tip of a tropical iceberg that should be explored further.

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