Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Cinequest ’13: The Playback Singer

His job is to make others sound great, but he specializes in making himself look bad.  He dubs musical numbers for Bollywood actors who cannot carry a tune in a bucket.  He does it well.  He is also a father, but not such a hot one.  Nonetheless, he will be staying for a while with his daughter in Suju Vijayan’s The Playback Singer (trailer here), which screens as a selection of the 2013 Cinequest Film Festival in San Jose.

Ashok Rao has been married several times, but he only has one daughter: Priya.  Of course, he was never around much.  Still, she readily agrees to put up her prodigal father when he comes to California for a concert.  She is a bit apprehensive about seeing the old man, while her freelance designer husband Ray Tomassi is a bit resentful, knowing full well their limited history together.  At first things are tense, especially when an unscrupulous promoter leaves Rao high and dry.  Yet, Rao and Tomassi eventually warm towards each other.  Wine helps.  Before long, she is fast losing patience with both of them.

Bollywood fans might be disappointed to find Playback adheres more closely to an American indie template.  Still, Vijayan has the taste and discipline to resist overplaying the fish-out-of-water culture clash card.  Instead, it is much more preoccupied with early midlife crises, the fear of failure, and the nasty realization you might have married someone more like your father than you would like to admit.

Tomassi is a dreamer and procrastinator, pathologically incapable of finishing his one commission, a hipster jungle gym.  Somehow though, Ross Partridge lets us emphasize with his fears and self-indulgences.  His unlikely buddy chemistry with Piyush Mishra’s Rao evolves subtly and naturally.  A prominent actor in Bollywood/alternate cinema (including Gangs of Wasseypur), Mishra invests the titular character with the right mix of dignity and regret.  Despite her efforts, Navi Rawat’s responsible daughter gets the shaft from the film, coming across rather uptight and judgmental, even though she’s the only one working a steady job.

Playback never breaks any new ground, but it has some nice moments of honesty.  There is a messiness to the characters that rings true.  Avoiding quirk for quirk’s sake, The Playback Singer is a small but earnest film that exceeds expectations.  Recommended for Mishra’s fans and regular viewers of smarter relationship dramas, The Playback Singer screens this Friday (3/1), Sunday (3/3), and Tuesday (3/5) as part of this year’s Cinequest in San Jose.