Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Jolly LLB 2: Review

It’s not often that one gets the opportunity to sit back and enjoy a Saurabh Shukla performance. The quintessential supporting actor, his roles are, all too often, supporting actor length. Not that he can’t do great things with 10 minutes of screen time— Hazaron Khwaishein Aisi is testament to this—but when he gets some width, Shukla is a joy to watch. Subhash Kapoor must recognize this; he gave Shukla one of his most fleshed-out roles, that of Judge Sundar Lal Tripathi, in 2013’s Jolly LLB. Shukla responded by stealing the film from under Arshad Warsi and Boman Irani’s noses.

Shukla is also the only actor carried forward to the somewhat-sequel, Kapoor’s Jolly LLB 2. Warsi has had to make to way for Akshay Kumar; “Jolly” now refers Jagdishwar Mishra, not Jagdish Tyagi. The premise, though, is much the same: unrefined newbie lawyer goes up against smooth-talking big city player, grows a conscience, takes on the system. This Jolly is tasked with proving the innocence of Iqbal (Manav Kaul), falsely branded a terrorist and shot by the police in a fake encounter. Arguing for the defence is Pramod Mathur (Annu Kapoor), a Lucknow attorney who’s friends with the inspector who killed Iqbal.

Some of the underdog scrappiness of the 2013 film survives, but casting Kumar in the lead means an abundance of what, for lack of a better word, one might call “hero moments”. When Warsi in the earlier film threatened to slap someone silly in court, it was both funny and revealing of a streetwise character up against something much larger than himself. When Kumar threatens to do the same (thrice), it’s what the audience already expects from him. This is not to say that Kumar isn’t an effective Jolly—there’s a comforting solidity to his performance—but when you bring in a huge star to replace a minor one, there are beats that have to be hit.

Jolly LLB 2 has a busy plot, but the film’s real triumph is the wealth of detail that informs the scenes. Kapoor, who’s also written the film, has a good eye and ear for the blackly comic and the mildly surreal: a suhaag raat scene with the groom in handcuffs, a cricket match between burqa- and sari-clad teams. His visual style is unobtrusive but notice how the background is forever busy, whether it’s policemen chuckling or Jolly’s wife, Pushpa (Huma Qureshi), wiping their kid’s nose. Kapoor also has a knack for efficiently sketched side characters. Kumar, Annu Kapoor (very droll) and Shukla get the best lines, but Kaul as Iqbal, Rajiv Gupta as Jolly’s sidekick, and Inaamulhaq (in a late cameo) all have brief, memorable turns.

Not for the first time, I found myself wishing Kapoor would find the women in his films something to do. Pushpa is introduced as the kind of person who throws a fit because her hardworking husband won’t buy her a Gucci dress, and ends up as a cheerleader for him. Iqbal’s wife, Hina, played with some fire by Sayani Gupta, is little more than a device to help Jolly access his conscience. There’s also a disconcerting amount of screen-time dedicated to teary lectures about patriotism and duty. This has become somewhat of an Akshay Kumar staple in recent years: a dispiriting sidebar to his evolution as an actor.

There’s little doubt about what kind of film Jolly LLB 2 wants to be: broad, accessible and successful. Sometimes, this results in scenes more perplexing than stirring, like when Mathur stages a sit-down in court and an exasperated Tripathi joins him in opposition. Yet, even in the more bombastic moments, there’s often poignancy to be found. Towards the end, the judge gives a speech about the virtues of the Indian legal system. As he speaks, the camera pans back slowly to reveal stacks and stacks of case files—justice delayed, perhaps denied.

This review appeared in Mint.

The dying of the light

In December 2015, critic and film-maker Khalid Mohamed wrote a short piece for The Quint on the steady decline of DVD rentals in Mumbai. He mentioned the closing down of the long-running Shemaroo library on Napean Sea Road in 2014, and of the Teenage Library in Colaba, and the general lack of “romance” associated with DVDs in India. “Only a scant few dial-a-DVD outlets plod on,” Mohamed wrote. “But for how long?”

Ask the remaining outlets and they’ll tell you, not long at all. Everyone seems to agree that streaming services and downloads—legal and otherwise—have effectively ended the rental business. “On Hotstar and Netflix, you can get the films almost for free,” B.K. Ramesha of Movie Empire says. “Even the downloaded prints have become better. I don’t think DVDs have any future beyond two-three years.” “It won’t be that long,” the store’s other manager, Izaz Sheikh, chimes in. “This will be the last year.” As if to confirm this, during the 40-odd minutes I spent at Movie Empire, the phone rang only once, and there were no walk-ins.

Movie Empire was started in 2003 by Arun Goenka. Over the years the ownership has changed, as has the location; after eight years on Carter Road, it moved to Pali Naka in 2011, and to its present location on 16th Road, Bandra-West, four months ago. The day-to-day management, though, has remained in the hands of Sheikh and Ramesha since the start. Ramesha speaks often and with authority; Sheikh is more circumspect. Sheikh’s preference runs to classic Hindi and English films; Ramesha drops auteur names like Roman Polanski and Yasujirō Ozu and confides towards the end of our chat that he’s trying to make it as a director.

Though they have some 11,000 members in their database, Ramesha admits that the current numbers are “extremely down”. “With difficulty, we get about 100 customers a month,” he says. A decade ago, however, the library would receive around 200 calls and lend a hundred DVDs on average every day. Hollywood films comprised the bulk of their trade but what set them apart from all but a few rental stores was their world cinema collection. Even today, the selection is broad and eclectic, covering the familiar (Federico Fellini, Jean-Luc Godard, Pedro Almodóvar) and the obscure (the short films of D.W. Griffith).

I should mention my own debt of gratitude to Movie Empire. Ten years ago, on a two-month training programme in Mumbai, I visited their store on Carter Road and fell in love, not just with world cinema (which I had recently started devouring) but with the beatific vision of shelves stacked with DVDs. For someone who had read of Andrei Tarkovsky and Sergei Eisenstein and Jean Renoir but had never seen them, as it were, in the flesh, this was close to a religious experience. Even today, I remember the titles I rented: Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Mamma Roma, Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle Of Algiers, Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura.

Ten minutes from Movie Empire, the Sarvodaya Video Centre is an even more venerated haunt for foreign film fans. It opened in the pre-DVD era, when Manish Chandaria, after converting part of his father’s general store, began renting out VHS tapes in 1982 (his younger brother, Bakul, managed the business with him from 1990 to 2015). Today, the store sells phones and electronics in addition to lending DVDs and Blu-rays. The ground floor has mostly English and Hindi films and TV series, but go up a winding staircase and you’ll find yourself in a low-roofed attic chock full of world cinema.

Chandaria sources all the DVDs himself. He estimates that there are some 12,000 titles now. Each DVD has an old-fashioned library card at the back. “The aim is to have each one borrowed 20 times,” he says. “If it goes 20 times then I’ve made back my money.”

He runs me through some of the titles in the attic. “There are such amazing films here,” he murmurs. “Makes me feel proud.” He looks at a pile of Tartan releases of Ingmar Bergman films, calls them zabardast. Also zabardast are the Artificial Eye DVDs on the nearby shelf. I notice a copy of Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Camera Buff and mention that the film’s lead actor, Jerzy Stuhr, had been at the Pune International Film Festival a week ago. “Really?” he asks, face creasing into a smile. “This man? And where did you find the DVD?”

This might be the greatest contribution of these rental libraries—making a broad selection of foreign-language films available to cinephiles (variable quality notwithstanding, pirated DVD sellers might have had an even more profound effect). Unsurprisingly, both the Bandra-Khar outlets have well-known directors, producers, writers and actors among their clientele. Ramesha mentioned Sujoy Ghosh, Anurag Kashyap, Amole Gupte and Siddharth Roy Kapur, while Chandaria listed Ranbir Kapoor, David Dhawan and Aamir Khan as old customers, and spoke of his friendships with Ram Gopal Varma and A.R. Rahman.

It wasn’t just the films. Libraries such as these were places to browse and unwind, to talk cinema with like-minded people. Over the phone, Kahaani director Sujoy Ghosh recalled how he started off borrowing laserdiscs from Sarvodaya in 1998. “Even if wasn’t a filmmaker I would still visit both Sarvodaya and Movie Empire with equal enthusiasm,” he said. “It’s the pleasure of shopping. You flick through the DVDs, read the back covers, discover so many things you didn’t know.”    

Sarvodaya is marginally better off than Movie Empire—Chandaria owns the store and thus saves on rent. Yet, he too admits that the era of the DVD, and of DVD rentals, is almost over. “Everything has its time,” he says, fatalistically. Barring a major crackdown on illegal downloading, he sees little chance of the business recovering. He has no immediate plans to close down, though; he feels an obligation to his old clients, some of whom have been coming in since they were children, or have brought their own children in.

“Across Bombay you see that it’s shut down—DVD sales, rentals,” Sheikh says. “Everyone’s changing their business. No one wants to take the risk.” I ask what they’ll do with their stock if they have to close down. “Who knows?” Ramesha says, “It’ll end up in personal collections. Or we’ll keep it in a flat somewhere...”

With the closing of Shemaroo and Teenage libraries, Casablanca, on Carmichael Road, is the only significant rental store supplying the southern parts of south Mumbai. It was started in 1999 by Kalpesh Kerawala, who had joined Shemaroo as a 17-year-old and worked there for five years. Casablanca initially operated out of a bungalow on Altamount Road belonging to Kerawala’s friend and then-partner Nikhil Gupta. Kerawala claims they were the “first exclusive DVD library in Mumbai, maybe in India”—other stores were still selling VHS tapes and laser-discs when he decided to concentrate only on DVDs, he says.

Most of Casablanca’s customers live in the arc from Shivaji Park to Cuffe Parade, and from Bombay Central to Agripada. There are still a few drop-ins every day—a 60-something woman comes in looking for new releases, and is recommended Akan Satayev’s Anonymous by Kerawala—but the business runs primarily on deliveries. The store differs from its Bandra counterparts in that there’s a predominance of Hollywood films, old and new, and little foreign-language cinema. Kerawala is well aware of this, explaining that the clientele for world cinema consists of “filmi people”, who live mostly in Bandra and Andheri (“They want to watch all these foreign films, basically, to get ideas,” he says).

Casablanca has some 3,000 customers in its database, but Kerawala says only a couple of hundred are still active. He remembers how, at their peak, they would average 150 rentals a day. Now, he says, it’s a struggle to break even every month. There are customers who have stuck with him from the beginning, but it’s getting increasingly difficult to convince people to continue their memberships, he says. “Customers ask me, why should I renew?”

Casablanca, like Movie Empire, is a rented property, and the high cost of keeping a business running on Carmichael Road is forcing Kerawala to consider closing down the store and operating out of a garage. Like everyone else, he speaks of the near-impossibility of running a DVD rental business in the age of streaming services and illegal downloads. His few remaining regulars are mostly over the age of 50: the sort who couldn’t be bothered to get a Netflix account or learn how to work a torrent.

Our conversation seemingly over, I reach to switch off the recorder. At this point, Kerawala, under the misconception that I am a screenwriter, mentions that he had always hoped to write a movie himself. I ask if he has any unpublished drafts lying around. “There used to be,” he replies, speaking very softly, as if trying not to wake slumbering memories. “I didn’t write down stuff, but I had a voice recorder, which had short stories, many things. And one day, I left the recorder in a cab. So it’s all gone.”

This piece appeared in Mint Lounge.

Raees: Review

If you’re an Indian director making a gangster film, is there some kind of form you must sign promising to make your anti-hero altruistic? Of all the rules handed down by The Godfather, the idea of don as benevolent patriarch is what filmmakers here seem to have taken most to heart over the years (not that directors abroad are immune). Your central character could be the most cold-blooded of killers, but it’s somehow palatable if he’s shown helping an old woman out with her rent.

This idea of the social-minded don was taken to ridiculous heights in last year’s Kabali, and now it’s back again, in the form of Raees (Shah Rukh Khan): bootlegger, murderer and community hero. This isn’t to say that criminals can’t, or don’t, become leaders in their neighbourhoods. It’s just that this sort of audience manipulation is too easy—even for a mainstream, extra-masala film like Rahul Dholakia’s Raees.

Throughout the film, Raees’ mother’s advice is repeated: no work is too small; there’s no religion above work; do whatever work you want as long as you don’t harm innocent people. It’s a convenient loophole—the people Raees kills are criminals, and therefore not innocent—one which the film has no interest in exploring. Towards the end, Raees’ wife, Asiya (Mahira Khan), calls him bekasoor (innocent), a description so laughably inaccurate that it could be dismissed as her delusion if one didn’t get the feeling the film believed it as well.

Raees unfolds in Fatehpura, Gujarat—then, as it still is, a dry state. Prohibition means bootleggers, and we see young Raees finding a foothold in the trade, ferrying alcohol bottles past policemen in his schoolbag for local supplier Jairaj (Atul Kulkarni). The film then jumps forward to the 1980s, with a grown-up Raees working as a strongman for Jairaj. Eventually, he starts his own distribution chain, and, through guile and blunt force, captures the bootleg alcohol market in Gujarat. This brings him to the attention of the authorities, in particular police officer Majmudar (Nawazuddin Siddiqui).

As he did with another Khan vehicle, Bajrangi Bhaijaan, Siddiqui jumpstarts the film as soon he appears onscreen. There isn’t another actor in Hindi cinema right now with such a direct connection to the audience. We’ve seen incorruptible cops before, but they tend to be humourless and violent, like Om Puri in Ardh Satya or Manoj Bajpayee in Shool. But Siddiqui’s Majmudar is a hoot, driving a steamroller over rows of confiscated bottles and repeatedly asking for orders in writing from his corrupt superiors. The sheer pleasure of watching him and Raees banter like hero and villain in a 1970s’ drama made my hopes rise—though I soon dialled down my expectations after two exceedingly shoddy action sequences (the fights and chases are almost as ludicrous— and less fun—as those in a Rohit Shetty film).

Raees is clearly intended as a piece of popular entertainment, which means that its politics—when in evidence at all—remain muted. In one notable sequence, a Hindu politician has taken out a yatra, and despite warnings from Raees, has decided to pass through his (Muslim) neighbourhood. Raees and his followers end up attacking the procession. Swords are grabbed, people are set on fire. The political implications of what is, in all but name, a communal riot in Gujarat aren’t addressed; the incident is presented simply as a businessman protecting his turf. Later in the film, when Raees is distributing food during a curfew, one of his people suggests not sending supplies to Hindu neighbourhoods until their finances are sorted out. He’s scolded by Raees, who asks why he’s bringing up religion now when he never thought of it while doing business with them.

Eyes lined with kohl, his body strangely stiff, Shah Rukh Khan plays Raees warily—or is it that Raees is wary? Khan isn’t as bold here as he was in Fan, but this isn’t a greatest-hits package either, like his turn in Dear Zindagi. Perhaps realising that audiences would expect him to do Tony Montana, he gives them his version of Warren Beatty as Bugsy Siegel: ingenious, unflappable. Yet, because Khan holds so much in reserve, Raees remains a cipher. To borrow an old theatrical aphorism, he plays the king as if afraid someone else might play the ace.

Siddiqui plays that ace, then plays it again. Several hands go the way of Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub, quietly intense as Raees’ friend and second-in-command, Sadiq. Mahira Khan, breaking into Gujarati from time to time, looks like she’s in the wrong card game. And Dholakia has a tell; ever so often, he has someone repeat the “baniye ka dimaag aur miyanbhai ki daring” line. I stopped counting after the third time. It’s a good line, but it’s not that good.

This review appeared in Mint.

Divines & Aquarius: Review

Divines is a reminder that the French are the ones to beat when it comes to empathetic studies of the lives of teenagers and children. The film, which centres on the combative, ambitious Dounia, a 15-year-old living on the outskirts of Paris, won the Camera d’Or for best first feature at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival. Directed by French-Moroccan Houda Benyamina, it’s a lit fuse from start to finish.

Over the opening credits, Dounia addresses the camera as Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver—“You talking to me?”—much like Vincent Cassel did in La Haine over 20 years ago. It’s a combative start, and the hoodie-wearing Dounia doesn’t let up, crashing out of school spectacularly, then brazening her way into a job as a drug dealer (“You’ve got clitoris,” her fearsome supplier, Rebecca, says admiringly). Though it’s frequently comic, the film doesn’t disguise the harshness of its heroine’s surroundings or the dangers of her trade; her first drug sale results in a brutal beating.

Like Céline Sciamma’s Girlhood (2014), which it resembles in spirit and look, Divines alternates between grittiness and diamond-hard stylization. Benyamina barrels through one set-piece after another: a shoplifting in a supermarket; an escalating classroom scene (modern French film-makers have a thing for kids arguing in classrooms); Dounia confronting the dancer Djigui, a sequence every bit as charged as the near-standoff with riot police that comes later.

In an interview with The Guardian, Benyamina, who grew up poor in the Parisian suburbs, mentioned that she channelled the anger she felt during the 2005 riots into this project. “Better to make a film than a bomb,” she said. That anger is palpable, as is a deep empathy for the flailing, fighting characters. “There’s no soul, I don’t feel the soul,” Dounia’s friend mock-critiques a dance performance. Divines is all soul.

There was a quietly brilliant double bill hidden within the programming of the 2016 Mumbai Film Festival: Mia Hansen-Løve’s Things To Come and Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Aquarius. Both films are built around a figure rarely seen in mainstream cinema: an independent older woman making her own way in the world. Like Hansen-Løve’s film, or Sebastián Lelio’s Gloria some years ago, Aquarius has better things to do than dwell on the supposed loneliness of a single 50-something woman, presenting instead a complex, wonderfully real protagonist.

Like Filho’s first film, Neighbouring Sounds, Aquarius is set in the Brazilian beach town of Recife. Clara (Sônia Braga) has lived there for years, in an flat in an apartment complex by the sea. She stays alone—her husband is dead, and her children have lives of their own—though she has plenty of company, a revolving door of friends, hired help and extended family. She’s a retired music critic, author of a monograph on Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos, though she seems to derive equal pleasure from her 1970s rock vinyls, singing along to Queen’s "Fat Bottomed Girls" in one memorable scene.

Clara is the last remaining resident in her apartment complex; the developers, who intend to replace it with a new structure, have bought out the others. They approach Clara, suggesting that she leave too, but she refuses. Filho doesn’t reduce her decision to either stubbornness or sentiment, thus allowing Clara to seem like an inflexible old woman one minute and a courageous holdout opposing big business the next. Braga, a veteran of Brazilian cinema, embraces Clara in all her wilfulness and determination, the two-and-a-half-hour running time giving her (and the viewer) a chance to really get under the character’s skin.

Filho’s style is largely undemonstrative, though careful viewers will notice little tricks of camera and editing. The main thrust is political; you can sense the simmering anger towards the corrupt business elite. A protest staged at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival by cast and crew against the suspension of president Dilma Rousseff likely scuttled the film’s chances of becoming Brazil’s entry for the Oscars. It’s a pity: We would have loved to see Isabelle Huppert (for Things To Come or Elle) and Braga nominated for Best Actress, even if the chances of that happening were slim to none.

This piece appeared in Mint Lounge, along with a third write-up on 'Under the Shadow' by Zico Ghosh.

The Founder: Review

The Founder is as remorselessly efficient and bland as the institution it celebrates. There isn’t a wasted frame in this telling of the Ray Kroc story—a seller of milkshake machines becoming the head of the largest fast food chain in the world—which is a pity. The film might have benefitted had it taken a breath from time to time and considered its surroundings. When this does happen, like the scene where Kroc (Michael Keaton) joins a client’s wife (Linda Cardellini) at a piano for a rendition of Pennies from Heaven, the film comes alive.

If you’re familiar with the McDonald’s story, you’ll know that Kroc didn’t start the enterprise, much as he’d prefer that people think he did. It began, instead, as a burger-fries-and-shakes joint in San Bernardino, California. The owners were brothers, Mac and Dick McDonald; they, not Kroc, were the ones who devised the time-efficient way of delivering food that set McDonald’s apart from other drive-in joints in the 1950s. In the film, Kroc, intrigued by their unusually large order of milkshake machines, pays them a visit. Recognizing the uncommon efficiency and replicability of their idea, he gnaws away at them until they enter into a partnership agreement with him. Almost immediately, he starts opening franchises.

If you didn’t already know that Kroc’s ambitions soon outstripped those of the McDonald brothers, you’ll see it coming from a mile off. It’s not just the spot-on casting: Keaton with his hawk-like stare, Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch—both excellent—as the sad-sack siblings. This isn’t a film given to subtlety of any kind, signaling its intentions and underlining its primary themes with wearying tenacity. Kroc’s long-suffering wife (Laura Dern) actually asks him “When’s enough going to be enough for you?”, a line that ought to be made unavailable to biopic screenwriters everywhere.

John Lee Hancock’s film is tougher on its subject than I expected it to be; Kroc is shown neglecting his wife, dumping her once he’s successful, manoeuvring the franchise out of the hands of the hapless Mac and Dick. Yet, even this hard-nosed opportunism is presented as a kind of ode to capitalism and straight-talking American gumption. When Kroc first lays eyes on the golden arches, he gazes up at them in awe. We get the McVision, without the McIrony.

This review appeared in Mint Lounge.

Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World: Review

In Westworld, probably the most discussed TV series last year, the robots in a Wild West-themed amusement park have inbuilt dreams—reveries, as their creator describes them. This word pops up in the title of Werner Herzog’s new documentary about the Internet, Lo And Behold: Reveries Of The Connected World. This is a curious little coincidence, not only because “reverie” isn’t a word you hear much nowadays, but also because these two projects, utterly different at first glance, share an all-pervasive pessimism about our dependence on technology.

Of course, technology isn’t the only thing Herzog is gloomy about. One of the great pleasures of his non-fiction films is his voice-overs, which discuss with seeming relish impending doom by volcano, climate change or more prosaic means. In this film, it’s a solar flare. When there’s a flare strong enough, he learns, the Internet could be damaged permanently, which in turn will probably derail human life. There are 10 segments in Lo And Behold, and it’s clear from some of the titles—“The Dark Side”, “Life Without The Internet”, “The End Of The Net”—that the German film-maker is no Web evangelist.

Herzog is one of the great chroniclers of the untamed wild, both in his fiction (Aguirre, The Wrath Of God, Fitzcarraldo) and his documentary work (Grizzly Man, Encounters At The End Of The World). Though he’s made documentaries that hew closer to the urban experience, the Internet nevertheless seems like a step out of his comfort zone; that zone being somewhere near the edge of an active volcano. The segments in Lo And Behold don’t tell a cohesive story, and they probably aren’t meant to. What begins as a history of the Internet turns into a cautionary tale about cyberbullying, Web addiction and online security, before dedicating its last few segments to speculation about the future (Elon Musk, founder of Tesla and SpaceX, makes an appearance).

As always, Herzog is at his best when he zeroes in on compelling eccentrics. The interviews with guests at an Internet rehab facility are fascinating, as is the strange story of the woman who found she was allergic to electronic signals of all kinds and lived in a Faraday cage for years. There’s the young scientist who programmes robots to play football and says, without visible irony, “We do love Robot 8.” And there’s Herzog himself, posing, in that instantly familiar voice, the kind of questions no other documentarian will. “Could it be that the Internet starts to dream of itself?” he asks two clearly delighted brain researchers. These are the moments Herzog fans treasure, when the doomiest of modern film-makers reveals himself as one of the most romantic.

This piece appeared in Mint Lounge.

Film Review: Haraamkhor

I first saw Shlok Sharma’s Haraamkhor at the Mumbai Film Festival in 2015. I remember being moved at the time by Shweta Tripathi’s brave performance, but also put off by the jocular treatment of the b-plot and the empty bombast of the ending. A second viewing earlier this week reinforced these feelings. Haraamkhor is both uncompromising and compromised, unflinching and outrageous. Chances are, even if it ends rubbing you the wrong way, you’ll feel something.

Tripathi, 26 when the film was shot, plays the lonely 15-year-old Sandhya, the daughter of a police officer posted in a small unidentified town in central India. Kept at arm’s length by her morose father, she develops an intense, destabilizing crush on Shyam (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), a teacher in the local school. Driven half-desperate by sexual curiosity and the desire for adult approval, she’s easy pickings for Shyam, who has preyed on young women before (we find this out through when Shyam’s wife says she doesn’t like Sandhya, then reminds him that she used to be his student too).

When the film isn’t concentrating on Shyam and Sandhya, the focus shifts to two local schoolchildren, Mintu (Mohd Samad) and Kamal (Irfan Khan). Kamal has his own romantic feelings for Sandhya, which the film treats mainly as slapstick. Whenever the two kids appear onscreen, they’re accompanied by a comic musical theme. Samad gets up to impish fun and Khan has a sadness to him that’s touching, but by treating their subplot with very little seriousness, writer-director Sharma places all the weight on his main story.

By the time Haraamkhor begins, Sandhya’s already in neck deep. Because we never see the beginnings of her infatuation, it’s impossible to say if Shyam was more charming in the initial days of the seduction. The man we see is crude, rough-spoken, cowardly – not someone you’d expect a girl, even one as insecure as Sandhya, to fall for, though teenage urges are rarely sensible and often self-defeating. Only marginally more appealing than Shyam is Sandhya’s father, distant when he isn’t drunk, and harboring a secret.

As if to match the subject matter, the visual aesthetic is specifically, intensely anti-beauty. The surroundings, all rocky ground and howling wind, are spare and unlovely. From time to time, and for no conceivable reason, the camera gets a major case of the shakes. Out of this spare sternness, some formidable scenes emerge: Sandhya and Shyam circling each other like matador and bull on a windy outcrop; Shyam throwing the emotional kitchen sink at his wife to stop her from leaving him. Siddiqui – never one to paper over a character’s failings – plays Shyam as weak and despicable, but the emotional centre of the film is rightly claimed by Tripathi, who is by turn fiercely passionate, needy, desperate and devastated.

Though it’s been cut short by the censor board, the ending is still as perplexing as when I first saw it. The last 10 minutes play out like a writer’s attempt at a big, thudding climax rather than a natural culmination of events. It’s undeniably dramatic – all that rain and mud, sound and fury – but compare it to the last scene of Nagraj Manjule’s Fandry and you’ll see the difference between shock deployed for shock’s sake and something that’s disturbing but inevitable. Nevertheless, with its unadorned treatment of an uncomfortable situation, Haraamkhor is a difficult film to shake off.