Monday, February 18, 2019

Gully Boy: Review

There’s a phrase that echoes through Gully Boy like a talisman. Bohot hard, fledgling rapper Murad (Ranveer Singh) is told again and again, as encouragement, as validation. It’s a compliment the film would badly want paid back to it. But it’s not that easy. ‘Bohot hard’ is the gulf between Murad coming up in confidence-annihilating open mics and Singh getting to rap not just because he’s good at it but because he’s a famous actor and people are happy to let him. It’s also the distance between the lives of Singh and director Zoya Akhtar and the sort of people whose lives they’re putting on the screen.

If Gully Boy earns its props by the time it’s done, this is testament to its immersion in, and respect for, the world it springs from. The first thing we see on screen is a shout-out to “the original gully boys, Naezy and Divine", the rappers whose stories formed the basis for Akhtar and Reema Kagti’s script. Other rappers turn up too, in small roles or as performers. A lot of the film is shot in Dharavi – where Murad lives with his father, mother, grandmother and brother – but the neighbourhood isn’t exoticized. Or rather, it is, but by a group of tourists on a “slum tour", a knowing bit of us-versus-them positioning by Akhtar, sold wonderfully by Singh (Murad looks more amused than angry at strangers entering their home).

Gully Boy lasts 153 minutes, and there will be those who’d prefer to cut short the gradual build-up. But there’s so much happening in each frame that I was happy to let the narrative move forward at its own pace, repeat itself a little. It's overstuffed in the best sense, with music and movement and slang, and half a dozen characters who could be at the centre of their own film. There’s Safeena (Alia Bhatt), Murad’s hot-tempered but devoted girlfriend, who’s studying to be a doctor. There’s Murad’s friend, Moeen (Vijay Varma), a mechanic, carjacker and drug dealer, with the same burning anger but nowhere useful to channel it. And there’s beatmaker Sky (Kalki Koechlin), who carries with her the promise of a richer, smoother world.

When we first meet Murad he’s studying in college and writing rhymes with no intention of actually performing them. Safeena’s the one bright spark in his otherwise difficult life: money is tight, and his father (Vijay Raaz) is dismissive of him, cruel to his mother (Amruta Subhash), and has just brought home a new wife. One day, Murad attends an open mic hosted by local rapper MC Sher (Siddhant Chaturvedi) and offers him his rhymes. Sher pushes him to perform – which he does successfully. He fluffs a subsequent rap battle but the seeds are sown. Soon, he’s recording his first single.

This is where Gully Boy nearly lost me. First, there’s the contrivance that Murad, faced with the first proper recording of his life, seemingly spits it out in one go, no false starts or flubs. Then there’s the montage that accompanies the track, “Doori" – a music video of sorts, with people from Murad’s neighbourhood. It’s an object lesson in how not to shoot poverty, all immaculate framing and gliding camerawork and meaningful close-ups. Singh is shown rapping the last few lines in the studio, and I was left thinking how much better it would have been if we’d stayed with him.

Koechlin’s Sky comes across as a stand-in for Akhtar and Kagti, a curious, well-heeled artist who genuinely believes that talent overrides one’s circumstances. Murad knows better, but he’s also falling for Sky and the life that she represents. She takes him out on a graffiti run one night, tagging billboards with skinny models and fairness cream ads. Since Koechlin has herself modelled for various fashion brands and Singh has been rendered visibly darker for this role, it’s a little difficult to untangle the politics of the scene from the people in it. This is at best a glancingly political film. The Dub Sharma track “Jingostan" might have references to lynching, but it’s presented innocuously, without context. “Azadi" hints at demonetisation, but ducks the controversy it courted in changing the caste references in Kanhaiya Kumar’s original chant by leaving that bit out altogether.

Given the testosterone levels of Singh’s last two performances – a warrior king in Padmaavat, a cop in Simmba – it’s a relief to see how much he holds himself back in Gully Boy. Though he’s a bit too buffed-up to suggest an ordinary kid, his body language is toned all the way down. MC Sher is the alpha in his scenes with Murad – a huge compliment to Chaturvedi, but also to Singh’s willingness to pack his jack-in-the-box charisma into a more contemplative package. Similarly, Vijay Varma, though physically less imposing than Singh, is more intimidating in their confrontations.

For much of the film, Safeena doesn’t have much to do besides support Murad’s dreams and be jealous of any woman paying him attention. Even when her own ambitions are made clear, it’s not the best-defined part, but it has the funniest lines, and Bhatt renders Safeena both lovable and slightly demented. After she attacks a girl for sending Murad a Valentine’s Day message, they have an argument. Suddenly, she stops frowning and flashes Murad a beatific smile – a change of mood that’s scarier than her earlier ferocity. Singh and Bhatt make a lovely pair – I don’t know if any other combination of Hindi film actors could so casually pull off the scene in the train compartment where they kiss, then talk a bit, then kiss some more, like Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman in Notorious.

More than the Eminem-starrer 8 Mile, which it shares a few plot points with, I felt the ghost of Saeed Mirza’s Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro hover over this film. The relationship between Murad and his father isn’t too different from that of Salim and his father, except in Mirza’s film it’s the son who’s hot-headed. There’s also a similarity in the way Mirza shot Bombay – all those wonderful framings of characters in everyday surroundings – and the way Akhtar and cinematographer Jay Oza go about their work here. There’s the memory of another Mirza film, Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyon Aata Hai, in the scene where Murad visits Moeen in jail. In another scene, the volatile Moeen reveals his own hurt. That’s another Mirza trait – an innate sympathy for all underdogs, deserving and undeserving.

In Sky’s house, Murad places one foot in front of the other and measures the length of the bathroom. We don’t see it, but he probably goes home and checks if any of the rooms in his place are that large. Before launching into his final song, he tells the audience about his journey. He murmurs softly into the mic, like someone at their first karaoke. Then the beat drops, and he’s a volcano. It’s a hard-won transformation – bohot hard – and it rings true.

This review appeared in Mint.

Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga: Review

At the start of A Damsel in Distress, PG Wodehouse mock-complains about the demands on the modern novelist to get to the point of the story. “He must leap into the middle of his tale with as little delay as he would employ in boarding a moving tramcar," he writes. “Otherwise, people throw him aside and go out to picture palaces."

Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga, playing at a picture palace near you, is inspired – as screenwriter Gazal Dhaliwal revealed in an Instagram post – by A Damsel in Distress. It takes from Wodehouse’s novel the idea of a young man following the girl who crashes into his life back to her country home, where a complicated love story ensures. But it doesn’t heed the warning in its opening paragraph. Far from leaping into the middle of the tale, Shelly Chopra Dhar’s film only comes out and says what it must when it’s halfway through. This arrives in the plainest possible form: Sweety (Sonam K Ahuja) saying, “Main ek ladki se pyaar karti hoon (I’m in love with a girl)."

Up till this point, the film dances neatly around the unhappiness of Sweety and the fury of her brother, Babloo (Abhishek Duhan). The makers, too, danced around the topic while promoting the film, avoiding any direct mention of queer romance, putting just enough in the trailer to suggest that the problem isn’t Sweety falling in love with a Muslim man, Sahil (Rajkummar Rao), but elsewhere, in particular the brief visual of two women being pulled apart.

How necessary is the elaborate build-up to the big reveal? Some might say that Hindi cinema has waited over a hundred years to say something like this, and another hour won’t kill anyone. This is true, and there will be audiences who would prefer to be eased towards it, even if they know what’s coming. Never underestimate the gingerliness with which Indian viewers react to same-sex love on screen. When Sweety tells Sahil her secret – he’s fallen in love and tracked her to her hometown, Moga – he bursts out laughing. So did several people in the theatre, even though the scene isn’t played for comedy.

These nervous laughers are the ones Ek Ladki is hoping to appeal to. In the run-up to the release, it was suggested that this might be mainstream Hindi cinema’s first queer romance. It achieves something less exalted: the first major Hindi film in which queer love is a central plot point. The actual romance is bundled into one flashback. By placing Sweety’s partner in another country, the film avoids having to depict same-sex attraction. The film has a lot to say about how queer love affects heteronormative family structures, but not much about queer love or identity itself.

The setting is small-town Punjab, but there’s none of the specificity and sharpness of Luv Shuv Tey Chicken Khurana or Jugni. Chopra, a first-time director, collaborated with Dhaliwal on the script (the dialogue is by Dhaliwal). The writing feels somewhat old-fashioned, with comic routines announcing themselves as such, with silly music and exaggerated accents. Nor is it exactly subtle. Acting in Sahil’s play, Sweety appears on stage in a glass box. It’s almost as if she… wants to break free?

I don’t want to suggest that a Bollywood star playing a gay character in a big-banner film isn’t a huge step forward. This is a country where a 1996 film about a lesbian romance was violently protested, and which still regularly censors non-hetero narratives. For all its frustrations, Ek Ladki may be the sort of patient queer-love explainer India needs. The parallels with Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge are likely no accident: a girl who won’t go against her father’s wishes; a plan hatched to win the family over. The classic modern hetero romance becomes a model for a same-sex one. Sweety even has Simran’s passivity, allowing her father, then her brother, then Sahil, to speak for, and over, her.

During the opening credits, names appear on screen, then burst into what seem like petals. Dhar’s mild-mannered film does something similar, setting off a bomb under a hetero cinema tradition, but turning it into something soft and pretty so as not to alarm the viewer. The most self-aware line comes right at the end, when, faced with the prospect of a pairi pauna from Sweety’s partner, her grandmother says: “I haven’t changed that much." But she’s changed a little.

This review appeared in Mint.

Thackeray: Review

There’s a scene in Thackeray which reminded me of the Nazi-era cartoon Of the Little Tree Which Wished for Different Leaves. In this short propaganda film, a man steals the leaves of a tree in the forest. The thief is a Jewish caricature: big nose, beard, shifty manner. It was made in 1940, three years before the Looney Tunes short Tokio Jokio, which caricatures the Japanese for American viewers.

Early on in Thackeray, in Mumbai’s Eros cinema, the audience is enjoying an animated short before the main feature. Cartoonist Bal Thackeray (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) is in the crowd, and as he watches, the film on screen is replaced with one that’s forming in his mind. In it, people from various communities – primarily south Indian, but also Punjabis and Parsees – are bullying a hapless Marathi man. It’s a neat way of showing how the plight of the “Marathi manoos" was so all-consuming for Thackeray that he saw it wherever he went. I don’t know if he ever watched the Allied or Axis war cartoons, but he’d probably have approved of both.

Thackeray details Bal’s rise from cartoonist and agitator for the rights of Marathi people to founder of the Shiv Sena. And I do mean detail. The film is a Wikipedia page come to life, stopping at every major and minor signpost in Thackeray’s adult life. We see him address rallies, saying things like, “Now we won’t fold hands, we’ll break them"; launching the Marathi publication Marmik; founding the Shiv Sena, having the last word in meetings with Indira Gandhi and George Fernandes and Javed Miandad.

The anti-outsider plank of the Shiv Sena is brushed aside as the justifiable anger of an oppressed community. Still, the film waits a while to play its ugliest hand. Thackeray, by now king of Mumbai, goes to a Muslim neighbourhood and addresses a rally, asking the crowd to live together in harmony and not let politicians divide them along religious lines (very rich coming from him). The next scene shows Muslim men on the rampage, hacking people to death and setting a cop on fire. Every time we embrace them, they cut our throats, Thackeray tells his people. “Kuch nahi ho sakta hai unka (nothing can be done with them)."

Muslims are again shown as the first aggressors in the Mumbai riots, through a scene in which a Molotov cocktail comes to rest near a crying child. Children are again used in a scene showing the Mumbai blasts. The unspoken, obvious indication is that one community was massacring innocents and the other was protecting itself. Thackeray is asked in court about Sena men playing an active role in the riots. He gets away with saying that he visited riot-hit areas and controlled his people.

Director Abhijit Panse is a former Sena man, currently with the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena. Additionally, the film is being presented by Sena MP Sanjay Raut. A critical biopic was never on the cards; the only question, really, is how vitriolic it was going to be. Thackeray is 2 hours and 19 minutes, so the hate is spread out. The problem is, the scenes which exist only to praise Thackeray’s altruism and courage are bland. The nasty moments kept me engaged and enraged.

Sudeep Chatterjee’s photography, in black-and-white and colour, classes up the production: there’s a wonderful bit of framing with a shaft of sunlight, a sleepy man, a poster and a cat. Before he starts dressing like the older Thackeray, Siddiqui, in his white kurta and glasses, looks and sounds as he did in his last Hindi film, Manto. It’s a potentially great part and Siddiqui is authoritative, but he can’t take us inside Thackeray’s head the way he did with Manto, mostly because there’s no desire on the director’s part to explore the psychology of his subject.

I’ll leave you with a scene from after the riots. Thackeray’s car is approached by a Muslim woman and her family. She asks to speak with the politician. Inside, she tells him that their house was burnt down and begs for his help. Thackeray agrees, saying his quarrel isn’t with her religion. He then notices her husband looking at his watch. It’s time for namaaz. Thackeray invites him to offer prayers right there. As the camera pans over to the man kneeling, a statue of a tiger comes into the frame and there’s a loud roar on the soundtrack. That’s the film saying: we’ll allow you to pray here, but don’t forget whose jungle it is.

This review appeared in Mint.

Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi: Review

Period films will often tell you more about the state of the country than contemporary ones. A little over halfway through Manikarnika, the British lay siege to Jhansi. Their canons fire upon the fort but aren’t met with any response – the guns are positioned behind a temple, which the Indians won’t risk destroying even if it means losing the war. But wait. I have a plan, announces Jhansi’s queen and commander, Manikarnika (Kangana Ranaut). Audience waits expectantly for brilliant tactics.

What we get instead is the queen bursting out of the gates on a chariot, reins in hand, charging the British troops. Even with the element of surprise, she has a lot of ground to cover, and a whole army to shoot at her and a few followers on horseback, but the British seem incapacitated by this straightforward frontal attack. A couple of them fire at her, but she ducks. Apparently, one can duck bullets. She takes out the cannons, then hacks her way back to the fort, unscathed.

With its mixture of pumped-up nationalism, religiosity and utter stupidity, this scene feels like present-day India as much as it does something out of 1857. Manikarnika, directed by Ranaut after Radha Krishna Jagarlamudi left the production, is a slow-building, sustained surge of patriotic fervour, as messy and inflammable as a geyser on an oil rig. It’s based on the story of the Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi, who assumed charge of the kingdom after her husband and son died, defied the British and ultimately died in battle. Her story passed into folklore, and it’s the legend – not the historical figure but the mardani of Subhadra Kumari Chauhan’s poem – that has made it to the screen. You can't blame the makers – films on early Indian freedom fighters based strictly on fact would be depressing viewing.

The film begins as Baahubali did, with a special child being lifted out of the water (the two films share a screenwriter, KV Vijayendra Prasad). She’s named Manikarnika on the advice of a priest, who says she’s made for great things. The film then jumps ahead in time, and we see the grown-up Manikarnika, blue sari billowing like she’s in the Alps in a Yash Raj film and not standing in a field holding a bow and arrow. Her tiger-shooting and sword-fighting abilities land her an offer of marriage from the royal family of Jhansi (she’d grown up under the patronage of the Peshwa in Bithoor). And so she becomes Lakshmibai, wife of Gangadhar Rao (Jisshu Sengupta), who loves the arts and fears the British.

Manikarnika is sledgehammer-simple. Gangadhar is a gentle soul and not much interested in warfare, so of course he wears bangles. Manikarnika, on the other hand, melts her jewellery to make weapons. Love for the motherland is expressed non-stop, issuing florid from the pen of Prasoon Joshi, current Central Board of Film Certification chairman and one of the architects of the BJP’s “acche din" campaign. The Peshwa talks about “matrubhoomi ke liye niswarth prem (selfless love for the motherland)" as the highest ideal. There’s a song with the refrain “Main rahoon ya na rahoon, Bharat yeh rehna chahiye (Whether I’m there or not, India should remain)". There are more exhortations to die for one’s country than there were in the war film Uri a fortnight ago.

This patriotism is mixed with religion until the difference between the two fades. I noticed more gods here – as idols, paintings, sculptures – than in any Hindi film I’ve seen. The battlefield rings with cries of "har har Mahadev". Gangadhar watches a musical performance about Shiva. Manikarnika tells her adopted child the story of infant Krishna. She’s described as “saakshaat devi ka roop (a goddess come to life)". She appears in the nightmares of the British general as the avenging Kali. The last image in the film is an “Om" written in fire.

It’s not much of a jump from here to Manikarnika turning up to save a calf from being slaughtered. Ranaut knows that whatever liberal cred she loses by extolling gau raksha will be more than made up for by the mass audience that’ll lap up the scene. She’d laid the foundation for it months ago, when she told Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev on his talk show that people on the unit had warned her against shooting a gau raksha scene. “The prejudice is really agonising," she said. “But then a lynching takes place and you look like an idiot. And then you jump to the other side, which has always been criticising and never wanting to protect cows." She went on to talk about how liberals were always criticising the armed forces. Weeks before that appearance, she’d endorsed Narendra Modi as prime minister, saying that he hadn’t gotten the job “because of his mummy-papa" and that the country needed to be “pulled out of a pit". Manikarnika is the culmination of this political positioning, a film which shares the obsessions of the right: religion, nationalism, the military.

Ranaut, as first-time director, brings some of her own can-do spirit to the film. Lakshmibai is cast as a proto-feminist who says things like “Jab beti khadi hoti hai toh vijay badi hoti hai (when daughters stand up, the victory is bigger)." When she’s informed of her meagre military strength, she sets about training the women of Jhansi to fight. Throughout the film, it’s the women who take important decisions and the men who are weak or greedy. Manikarnika is almost superhuman; fine for the film, less so for Ranaut, who’s at her best playing brittle, life-size characters.

Manikarnika is the sum of what it’s saying – it doesn’t have visual stratagems strong enough to distract the viewer. It lacks the intricate design of Bajirao Mastani and Padmaavat and the muscular drive of Baahubali, only coming to life when it borrows the bloody graphic novel look of Zack Snyder films (such as the sequence where the queen slashes her way through a dozen enemy soldiers). The CGI work is slapdash, though, to be fair, rendering “queen jumps off fort wall on horseback, survives" would tax the best in the business. The production and costume design is budget Bhansali, Ranaut’s sarees paling in front of the many, many silly hats worn by the East India Company men.  

Exploding the canon with Mark Cousins

Though TV audiences in the UK knew Mark Cousins as the host of Scene By Scene and Videodrome, it was his 2011 documentary The Story Of Film: An Odyssey which announced him to the world. This 15-part film is, as the title indicates, a history of cinema, but viewers expecting the familiar narrative of Europe and America influencing each other over and over, with the rest of world cinema putting in cameo appearances, would have been startled. Cousins used the film to place directors like Guru Dutt and Youssef Chahine on the same pedestal as Orson Welles and Jean-Luc Godard, and challenged viewers to revise accepted ideas of cinematic quality.

Cousins, who lives in Edinburgh, had a busy 2018. His documentary The Eyes Of Orson Welles, a tribute which began with a gift to Cousins of hundreds of artworks by the director, premiered at Cannes (it also played at the Mumbai Film Festival). He wrote The Story Of Looking, an exploration of the ways we take in the world visually. And he’s putting the final touches on a documentary called Women Make Film: A New Road Movie Through Cinema. This 16-hour film, which focuses on women directors from all eras and from around the world, will premiere sometime in 2019, though excerpts have already been shown in festivals. We caught up with Cousins at his hotel in Bandra, Mumbai before he left for Mehboob Studio—he was eager to see the soundstage where Guru Dutt, a favourite (he has a Kaagaz Ke Phool tattoo), shot one of his most famous scenes. Edited excerpts:

What gave you the idea for ‘Women Make Film’?
I became increasingly frustrated at the kind of conversations that movie-lovers have. They talk too often about the same films again and again. I’ve always been interested in what I don’t know. I heard about this Bulgarian film-maker, Binka Zhelyazkova. I thought, wow, why have I not heard of her before? Her work is wonderful and incredibly popular in Bulgaria. A third of the population was going to see her films. Kira Muratova for me was as great as Martin Scorsese. How many people have heard of her work?

I first started gathering the information about six years ago. I just started going to the film archives of the world and saying, who are your great women directors? In Bulgaria, in Albania, in Hong Kong, they said who they were. I did it on the back of other things. We had no budget for this film at all. We just funded it ourselves because nobody wanted a 16-hour film about the great women directors. Then, because of (Harvey) Weinstein, it became more topical.

We need a revolution in cinema because it’s been far too dominated by men. But we also need to remember the great women film-makers who have been written out of movie history.

You wrote in ‘Sight & Sound’ magazine in 2015 that the starting point should be to “assume (women directors) are out there".
You have to. My background is science—the scientific method is that you have a theory and you try to disprove it. If you can’t, maybe you’re right.

If we say there aren’t many women directors today—which is true—does that mean that there have never been many? Our political arguments today about the fact that there aren’t enough women film-makers can blind us to the fact there have been many film-makers in countries from Sri Lanka through Korea to Senegal.

Did you find that people in the countries you visited didn’t know about their own female directors?
Well, yes. That’s why I went to the archivists, a lot of whom were female. But I talked to young Chinese, Bulgarian film-makers who don’t know who their women directors are. It’s the fault of the film magazines, TV programmes, historians who aren’t addressing this stuff. But we have to blame ourselves also. When Kira Muratova died, lots of people said “I’ve never heard of her". Some of her work is free on YouTube. It’s really easy to Google “great female directors from Russia". We have to blame our own lack of curiosity if we haven’t typed in those five words.

You’ve structured the film as a masterclass.
Yes. It’s 40 chapters, asking very simple questions—how do you do an opening shot, how do you film war, how do you film sex? Nothing about the female gaze, how women make films differently from men. There’s a real danger of gender stereotyping. I’ve heard people say Kathryn Bigelow makes films like a man. I think, fuck that, she makes films like Kathryn Bigelow. Does Pedro Almodóvar or Youssef Chahine or George Cukor make films like a woman?

You’ve consistently challenged the idea of traditional film canons. When did you start breaking away from them?
When I was 12, I loved the idea of a film canon. I needed to be told what to watch. I didn’t know who James Whale was, who Douglas Sirk was. When I was 22, I was getting a bit tired of that. I started to realize that there’s Ousmane Sembène and Djibril Diop Mambéty. I was looking for an African canon. And guess what, the African canon could plant a bomb under the European and American canon. When I was 32, I started thinking, what about Indian cinema, why have I only heard of Satyajit Ray?

Each canon should explode the previous one, plant a bomb. I’m not against the idea of canons—but I reject the idea of a single canon, or a canon that is everlasting.

Are cinephiles today curious about lesser-known cinemas and film-makers?
I think canons still have a pretty strong hold. I’m pretty optimistic about most things, about this I’m not. Like when she dies (points to his Kira Muratova tattoo) and people say I haven’t heard of her, I just want to say, for fuck's sake, why not? When I was young it was really hard to see films. Citizen Kane I heard about when I was 9 or 10; I had to wait 10 years to see it. Now you don’t need to wait 10 seconds.

If you’d said to me a decade ago, suddenly film will become massively available on something called YouTube or DVD, I'd have said, hallelujah, the problem is solved, people will fall in love with every type of cinema. That hasn’t happened. People’s curiosity has lagged behind the availability.

What spurred you to write a book about “looking"?
I’ve been interested in looking all my life. At school I was a slow reader. When I was presented with a page of text, I was scared, but the visual world came to me very quickly. At a time of new looking technologies like Skype and VR, I wanted to write a history of how we got to the point of a deluge of looking, the overload of screens, and is this good or bad. And the answer is: both.

We are sitting in one of the most visual countries in the world. India and Mexico are the two places in the world that seem to do visuals better than anyone. Walk out on to any street in India and you’ve got a visual overload. It’s not just about the amount of things that are happening, it’s the amount of decoration, the way colour is used, the way banyan trees are hung.

Your documentary on Orson Welles is also about looking. It’s amazing how we keep turning up new stuff on Welles.
I thought, what else is there to say? Then I saw the drawings and paintings. The fact that there are a thousand of’s like I said in the film, he didn’t write an autobiography, he drew an autobiography.

It’s been eight years since ‘The Story Of Film’. Have there been any films or directors since that you’d like to have included in it.
Yes. Have you seen the new Spiderman film? I thought it was dazzlingly original. If I was doing a new chapter in The Story Of Film, it would be in there. Then there’s the use of sports cameras. Did you see the documentary Leviathan, about fishing? That would be in there. Jonathan Glazer’s film about the alien, Under The Skin, that’s amazing. Also, film-maker Alice Rohrwacher, she’s really great.

Besides ‘Women Make Film’, do you have anything else out in 2019?
A film I did is starting to go around. It’s called Storm In My Heart. I discovered that two famous American women were born on the same day in Brooklyn. One was Susan Hayward, who was the biggest box-office star for a few years in the 1950s. The other was Lena Horne, the famous African-American singer and actor. Because she was African-American, they shot her Hollywood films in such a way that her scenes could be cut out for the southern states, so the white racists didn’t have to see her.

I’ve taken one of Susan Hayward’s films and one of Lena Horne’s and intercut them. The complication is that the African-American woman came from the upper class and the white woman was from a lower class, so intercutting the films says something about gender, race and class.

This piece appeared in Mint Lounge. 

Why Cheat India: Review

In his first scene of Why Cheat India, Rakesh (Emraan Hashmi) does the worst thing an Indian moviegoer in 1997 could possibly do: tell someone watching Gupt for the first time that Kajol is the killer. Granted, he’s revealing this to someone who isn’t very nice, but there is such a thing as basic human decency.

That introduction is also a warning that the film may not know how to deal with its central character. The scene begins with a group of friends – including Satyendra (Snigdhadeep Chatterjee), who’s just qualified for a top-flight engineering college – being bullied out of their seats at the cinema hall. The same toughs then try to move Rakesh, who single-handedly beats them up even though one is carrying a gun. This is the only physical violence on Rakesh’s part in the film. The scene isn’t there because it’s in his character; director Soumik Sen probably just wanted a “hero entry" and settled for the easiest one.

The confusion about what Rakesh is supposed to stand for continues through the film. He’s revealed to be an examination fixer, someone who arranges for entrance tests to be taken by brilliant students on behalf of rich, weak ones. Satyendra becomes one such exam-writer, his father’s debt on his behalf making him easy prey. Rakesh is consistently terrible through the film; yet, Sen won’t allow him to become unsympathetic. Instead, he’s given speech after speech in which he paints himself as some sort of Robin Hood, redistributing wealth to poor, smart students.

There were no such delusions in the man on whom Rakesh is clearly modelled. Gordon Gekko (Wall Street, 1987) is one of the great antagonists in movie history because he’s gleefully, wholeheartedly amoral. He exploits young Bud Fox but is also fond of him, much like Rakesh both uses and feels responsible for Satyendra, shepherding him through the early days of college while also putting him on a punishing schedule of proxy exams. Like Gordon, Rakesh is married and involved with another woman. And sure enough, he ends up using Gekko’s famous phrase: greed is good.

There’s another reference, this time from an Indian film. In the scene where Satyendra is on the phone with Rakesh in Jhansi, there’s a poster for Satyajit Ray’s Jana Aranya (1975) on the wall behind him. It’s an apt comparison: Jana Aranya begins with a scene of cheating in an examination hall, and is a story of middle-class dreams and corruption. It’s also a reference for the sake of it. There’s no good reason why there’d be poster of a Bengali art film on a wall in Uttar Pradesh in the late ‘90s (it’s different in Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro, whose satirical universe allowed for the use of Kumar Shahani and Mani Kaul film posters).

Satyendra fades from the second half of the film, and the narrative – already guilty of repetition – starts to meander. Rakesh attempts a scam similar to the engineering tests, with MBA entrance exams, but with Satyendra out of the picture, there’s less at stake emotionally. I was glad for the return of Nupur, Satyendra’s supportive sister, and the one searching character in the film. She falls for Rakesh, not because he’s particularly charming but because he’s played by Hashmi and it’d be bad for the actor’s image if the female lead wasn’t throwing herself at him. Even with this dispiriting arc, Shreya Dhanwanthary has an affecting low-key presence, and her reading of the line "Bahut meherbani hai" is beautifully bitter.

There are some nice touches. Before starting to write their engineering entrance papers, many of the students place flowers and small figurines on their desks for good luck (Satyendra actually takes his flowers – marigold, auspicious – back home). And there’s Rakesh’s habit of offering prasad to everyone he meets, a constant cleansing of the soul even as he tempts them into sin. Hashmi seems to enjoy himself; if the writing was brighter and the other characters had more agency, the film might have played differently. The best moments are early on, when we’re amongst the dreams of hungry toppers and desperate parents. Once that passes, Why Cheat India becomes just another Hindi film unwilling to admit that its hero is a villain.

This review appeared in Mint.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Bollywood’s accidental politics

Imagine attempting a Hindi film double bill last weekend. You would have begun with The Accidental Prime Minister. Rahul Gandhi looks lost. Sonia Gandhi looks like Nurse Ratched. The UPA government is a cesspool of political machinations. Former prime minister Manmohan Singh, played by Anupam Kher, is soft, feeble. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, appearing at the end in a news clip, is so much livelier.

Next up would have been Uri: The Surgical Strike. Modi’s in this as well, played by Rajit Kapur. Kher’s portrayal of Singh was on the brink of caricature; the audience snickered at the halting, high-pitched voice he assumed. But they don’t laugh in Uri, because Kapur doesn’t say “mitron", doesn’t try to imitate Modi. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) looks as organized and decisive in this film as the Congress looks uncaring and rudderless in the first.

In The Accidental Prime Minister, Singh has to manoeuvre the nuclear deal past the unwilling Gandhis. In Uri, Modi doesn’t hesitate before ordering a strike on Pakistan-administered soil. The films paint a neat composite picture for the undecided voter: The ruling party is tough on terror, tough on Pakistan; the opposition is power-hungry and doesn’t have the stomach for aggressive geopolitics.

In 2008, Hillary Clinton ran a controversial ad in the race for the Democratic Party nomination which asked the question: “It’s 3am (in the White House). Who do you want answering the phone?" Last weekend, the Indian version of this played out in cinemas across the country. But Clinton’s was a paid political ad. This is free publicity. And the timing couldn’t have been sweeter: a few months to go for the general election, one film with an ineffectual challenger, another featuring a capable incumbent.

The day the trailer of The Accidental Prime Minister released, it was shared on Twitter by the official BJP handle. Last weekend, Amit Malviya, head of the BJP IT cell, suggested taking the family to see both films. He also tweeted another video which has a group of stars—Varun Dhawan, Ranbir Kapoor, Alia Bhatt, Karan Johar, Ranveer Singh, among others—shouting “Jai Hind" twice (it was a promotion for Uri). “Have we ever heard film stars chanting Jai Hind like this before?" he wrote. “This is what changed in 4 years!"

Bollywood has been chanting “Jai Hind" for some time now. And the BJP and its allies have so successfully cornered the market on vocal nationalism that any film with a patriotic bent can be seen as doing their work. Almost every month last year, some film or the other waved the flag: PadMan, Gold, Satyamev Jayate, Parmanu: The Story Of Pokhran. In Baaghi 2, Tiger Shroff’s army man ties a stone-pelter to his jeep, just like Major Leetul Gogoi did in Kashmir. Later in the film, he pauses while decimating a police station, catches a small plastic India flag mid-air, and places it down carefully. This was greeted with cheers—probably emanating from the same sort of people who harass others for not standing when the national anthem is played.

A lot of this is simple commerce—patriotism is as saleable today as youthful romance was in the 1990s. With this comes opportunism. When Kangana Ranaut praised Modi and spoke against cow slaughter in July last year, it was a soft signal to his base that she’s one of them—and would they please also watch her nationalistic period film? Manikarnika, which stars Ranaut as the queen of Jhansi, who fought the British in the 1850s, is set to release on 25 January—just before Republic Day. The trailer ends with the queen saying that the difference between her and the British is that they want to rule and she wants to serve. This is the same argument Modi used against the Gandhi family in the run-up to the 2014 general election.

Thackeray also releases on 25 January, completing an unusually political month at the movies. There was some shock when Nawazuddin Siddiqui accepted the role of Bal Thackeray, erstwhile leader of the Shiv Sena, in what would likely be a propaganda film (it’s directed by Abhijit Panse, a former Sena member now with the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena). Why would he agree to play the founder of a party whose workers had forced him to pull out of a Ram Leela performance in his UP village? But Siddiqui has never been outspoken politically. It’s unlikely he agrees with the Sena’s ideals, but he probably weighed that against the opportunity the role represented and decided it was worth the bad press. In this he resembles much of the Hindi film fraternity, which—apart from the right-leaning Kher and BJP MP Paresh Rawal (incidentally, stars of The Accidental Prime Minister and Uri)—is establishment-leaning but says as little as it can about politics. Few could even find the courage to support Naseeruddin Shah when he was being threatened for saying he felt worried for his children in today’s India.

Last year, Chalo Jeete Hain, a short film inspired by Modi’s childhood, released. Two feature films on the prime minister are in the works—one starring Vivek Oberoi, the other, Rawal. The Hindi film industry has always flattered those in power, and will continue to do so. Uri and The Accidental Prime Minister may not have started out as propaganda. Yet, by releasing when they did, by opening alongside each other, and by feeding a larger political narrative, that’s what they ended up as.

This piece appeared in Mint Lounge, after the release of Uri and The Accidental Prime Minister and before Manikarnika and Thackeray.