Friday, July 8, 2016

Sultan: Review


Some 90 minutes into Sultan comes a short and rather remarkable scene. Sultan (Salman Khan), a former wrestling champion, stands in front of the mirror and stares at his bare top half, once a mass of rippling muscle, now flabby and undefined. Face twisted in disgust, he glares at his reflection until, suddenly, he snaps, grabbing his shirt and trying unsuccessfully to cover up the evidence of his decline. Then, he breaks down. The camera stays with him, just long enough to move past “strong man in agony” and access something a little more uncomfortable.

From an actor who isn’t known for putting himself out there emotionally, this is unexpected stuff. One might assume, both from the roles he takes up and his public persona, that Khan considers vulnerability to be beneath him. Yet, in this moment, he’s as open as he’s ever been on screen. Whether playing a plain-spoken fighter who’s at a low point in his life and in need of redemption triggered something within him is impossible to say and too irresistible not to speculate on.

The film begins with MMA promoter Aakash Oberoi (Amit Sadh) tracking down Sultan and asking him to fight in his faltering tournament. He’s rebuffed by the wrestler, who quit wrestling years ago, at the height of his fame. In an extended flashback, Sultan’s friend Govind (Anant Sharma) recounts for Aakash Sultan’s rise from expert kite-chaser—which, even in the small Haryana town of Rewari, marks him out as supremely unambitious—to Olympic medallist and world wrestling champion. We also track his relationship with wrestler Aarfa (Anushka Sharma) from infatuation to marriage and find out how a rift between them became the reason for his decline.

By the time we’ve arrived at Sultan’s moment with the mirror, Aakash has persuaded him to return to the ring, despite him being 40, unfit and unaccustomed to MMA fighting. Though it was clear even in the trailer that this would be a hard-won redemption story, writer and director Ali Abbas Zafar doesn’t take any chances, getting Sultan to literally say “underdog”. The film throws a kitchen sink filled with sports movie tropes at the viewer: initial training montage, final-stretch training montage, tough-as-leather coach. Sadly, the fights themselves aren’t memorable; most of them involve Khan taking a lot of punishment before disposing of opponents, quickly and unconvincingly, with a signature slam.

Even though this is a film painted largely in broad strokes, there are certain small decisions that are unusual and encouraging. Take, for instance, the film’s treatment of Aarfa. At one point, she seems like she’s going to be just another good Bollywood wife, sacrificing her career for her husband’s. Yet, though she does quit wrestling when she becomes pregnant (the film implies it may be accidental), Aarfa is allowed the space to be resentful about this. Sharma plays these scenes beautifully, her bitterness and regret frustrated by Khan’s stolid responses.

It’s also worth noting how, in a film about the ultimate desi jock, machismo is curiously absent. It’s not just the presence of female wrestlers throughout the film—even Sultan’s motivation to join the akhara isn’t to prove his manliness to Aarfa but to gain respect in her eyes. In other words, he wants to be like her. To put such thoughts in the mind of a Salman Khan character—which isn’t where one usually looks for female empowerment—strikes me as a very enlightened attitude on the part of the film.

Everyone does their job with a degree of professionalism befitting a Yash Raj Films production. There’s too much slo-mo as usual, but Artur Zurawski’s camerawork is nimble. Vishal-Shekhar’s title track is played something like a dozen times in the film and is catchy enough to withstand this overuse (credit, also, to Irshad Kamil’s lyrics). Zafar’s writing is simplistic but rousing; one could say the same of his direction too. There’s no Nawazuddin Siddiqui to partner Khan this time, but Anant Sharma is very funny as Govind. Anushka Sharma’s anger was, for me, the best thing in the film. And Khan, for once, seems to grapple with the material, occasionally finding in the older Sultan the world-weariness of an ageing gunfighter.

This review appeared in Mint.

Fireflies in the Abyss

Barbara Kopple’s pulsating 1976 documentary, Harlan County USA, begins with a cry of “Fire in the hole!” Then, to the accompaniment of Merle Travis’ "Dark As A Dungeon", it descends to where “the rain never falls and the sun never shines”. Miners crawl through narrow tunnels, hack at the walls with hammers and pickaxes, operate machinery, grab a bite to eat. It’s a rare up-close look at one of the least glamorous, most dangerous jobs in existence.

Chandrasekhar Reddy’s Fireflies In The Abyss, which looks at the hardscrabble lives of a group of Nepalese miners in the Jaintia Hills of Meghalaya, has a similar scene, only more terrifying. For one, these are narrow, unstable, unmonitored “rat hole mines”, which the Meghalaya government banned in 2014, after the film was shot. There’s no music, so you hear every scrape, every intake of dust-filled air. The miner in question is alone. He has no helmet. Most alarmingly, unlike the grown men of Kopple’s film, he’s a young boy.

Suraj is the heartbreaking centre of Reddy’s film. Only 11 years old, he supports his alcoholic father, having quit school to work in the mines. He has one bad eye and more good cheer than one might think possible, but when he goes underground, it’s difficult to breathe out of concern for him. Not that his life above ground is any cheerier. Early on in the film, he walks barefoot through a muddy swamp, reaching down into receptacles every once in a while. After a few attempts, he finds what he’s been looking for and returns to firmer ground, grinning. He’s just caught a very small fish.

Over the course of the film, we’re introduced to others in the camp. There’s Suraj, formerly a woodcutter, bar singer and part-time actor, and more recently—as he bitterly confesses—a cuckold (his wife ran off with a labourer; he doesn’t know whether he can face her again without killing her or himself). There are Suraj’s sister and brother-in-law, who run the small kitchen that provides the immigrant miners a vital sense of community. There’s the old man who counts the carts of coal; the mine manager who tells the workers they won’t make more money anywhere else. Most fascinating of all is Nishant, a soft-spoken, hip-looking young man. He’s an enthusiastic photographer—his stills, many of them strikingly composed, are scattered through the film.

Reddy shot the film over six months in 2012. He returns to check on the characters a year later, which allows certain story arcs—such as Suraj’s attempts to return to school, or his brother-in-law’s desire to leave and return to Nepal—to play themselves out. The overwhelming feeling is one of resignation. Besides the local lottery, there’s little these people have to look forward to. Most of them work in the mines all day, drink and then sleep. The dreariness of their life is echoed by the unadorned cinematography (by Reddy, working without a crew). The only glimpse of beauty is the old Hindi film songs that play on the radio, a more ironically apt soundtrack than the jaunty one with sax, flute and guitar, composed for the film.

Fireflies In The Abyss concerns itself with its subjects’ lives, leaving the viewer to ponder larger issues such as child labour and the curious absence of miner unions (the fact that they’re Nepalese might make them political pariahs even if there were worker organizations). It’s a sympathetic but sobering work, made without flash or sentiment. It struck me, long after I had finished watching it, that the fireflies of the title could refer to the faint glimmer of hope most of these miners have of making enough money to be able to quit the trade. Yet, for the most part, the film gazes into the abyss.

This review appeared in Mint.

All that Lahori Jazz


The year 1959 was a signal one in the history of jazz. In a heady period of five months, one artiste after another emerged with the record they would be remembered by: Miles Davis’ Kind Of Blue, Charles Mingus’ Mingus Ah Um, Ornette Coleman’s The Shape Of Jazz To Come. John Coltrane recorded his Giant Steps in the same year. The best-selling jazz album that year, though, was the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s Time Out, which reached No.2 on the billboard pop charts and sold a million units. The third track, "Take Five", is the one that everyone recognizes, beginning as it does with that irresistible piano vamp in 5/4 time.

In 1956, the US government had begun sending “jazz ambassadors” to various countries. One such envoy was Brubeck, who visited Poland, India, Pakistan and West Asia in 1958. When he played at a concert in Lahore, a young boy named Izzat Majeed was in the audience. Years later, Majeed, a businessman and philanthropist, established the Sachal Studio (named after the late Sufi poet Sachal Sarmast) to promote the talented but underemployed session musicians of Lahore. “We were just losing our instruments, we were losing our musicians, we were losing our culture,” he says in Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and Andy Schocken’s documentary, Song Of Lahore. “Something had to be done about it.”

The Sachal Ensemble’s first few folk and classical releases weren’t successful, but things took a turn when Majeed hit upon the idea of doing variations on jazz standards. “Jazz and our classical music—they have the same structure,” he tells the musicians in the film. “This is something you can pick up.” The ensemble broke through in April 2011 with their recording of "Take Five", the 5/4 rhythm settling very naturally on to the tabla and the sitar filling in for the saxophone. Suddenly, they were being featured on BBC and earning praise from Brubeck himself.

Through a series of deft individual portraits, Obaid-Chinoy and Schocken indicate how difficult life must have been for these musicians before Sachal happened. After General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq imposed sharia law in Pakistan in the late 1970s, the local film industry—a source of steady employment for classical musicians—began to disintegrate. When it re-emerged in the 1990s, the demand for traditional session musicians had dried up. The first 30 minutes of Song Of Lahore border on melancholic, with musician after musician recalling a time when their talents were more widely appreciated. “Kitni raunakein hoti thi (it used to be so lively),” remarks guitarist Asad Ali. “Jitna accha kaam tha, utna mar gaya yeh kaam (this profession used to be great, but it’s dead now),” says tabla player Rafiq Ahmed.

The film follows the ensemble to New York City, where they were invited in 2013 to play at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts with trumpet legend Wynton Marsalis and a jazz orchestra. Majeed’s assertion of common musical roots is put to the test by the directors, who show the Sachal players overawed and struggling to keep in time with their seasoned collaborators. The rehearsal scenes are some of the most fascinating in the film, with Marsalis’ instructions in English going from Majeed to arranger Nijat Ali and, translated, to the rest of the band. Though the possibility of collapse is very much in the air when Sachal’s sitar player is replaced on the eve of the concert, there’s a sense that these people have come too far for things not to work out. “Back home the clerics don’t let us breathe in peace,” Asad Ali says. “Here, we’re enjoying ourselves.” (This statement becomes all the more poignant in the aftermath of the recent killing of Sufi qawwal Amjad Sabri by extremists.)

Obaid-Chinoy is one of Pakistan’s best-known film-makers, having won Oscars for two of her short documentaries, Saving Face (2012) and A Girl In The River: The Price Of Forgiveness (2015). Song Of Lahore might be less obviously political than some of her other work, but it doesn’t lack for intimacy. When Saleem Khan breaks down in the middle of teaching his son the violin, or when Nijat visits his father’s grave, we’re reminded that the film is as much about family as it is about music. Nearly everyone speaks of carrying on the work of their fathers or passing on the knowledge to their sons. And this idea is brought full circle when Marsalis meets the ensemble after the concert and simply says, “Brothers, great”.

There’s another reason to seek out Song Of Lahore: It feels like home. Change a few details, and this story could be unfolding in Delhi or Lucknow or Amritsar. The characters speak about having to choose between riyaz and cricket. They play songs by Shankar-Jaikishan and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. They pronounce “Vin-tun” the same way a Punjabi here would. Over email, Obaid-Chinoy says the film hasn’t been screened in Pakistan yet, but they are looking for ways to make that happen. Hopefully, someone here is trying to do the same.

Me Tarzan, you censor


Before the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) imposed the moral strictures of the Hays Code, American films often included material that was risqué for the time. Tarzan and His Mate (1934) is one of a handful of films that epitomize ‘pre-Code’ Hollywood. The second film in the Tarzan series, it was directed by Cedric Gibbons and starred, like the first film and 10 others after it, former swimming champion Johnny Weissmuller. Playing opposite him as Jane was Maureen O’Sullivan, who spends most of the film in a thigh-baring loincloth. This garment might have incited a minor controversy had there not been another, larger issue for everyone to get riled up about.

The provocation was in the form of a skinny-dipping scene. For two-and-a-half-minutes minutes, Tarzan (in a loincloth) and Jane (in nothing at all) perform graceful underwater manoeuvres. O’Sullivan didn’t perform the scene—she was replaced by Olympic swimmer Josephine McKim. Weissmuller and McKim, both former Olympic gold medallists, display a balletic fluidity. With dappled sunlight filtering through the lake, the scene is anything but prurient. Nonetheless, it proved a step too far for the 1930s, and the Hays office, which had just begun to apply the Code rigidly, swooped down.



This wasn’t the first nude swim in a Hollywood movie. There was a brief scene with Clara Bow in Hula (1927), and Dolores del Río swum nude in Bird of Paradise (1932). But O’Sullivan and Weissmuller were stars, the first Tarzan movie had been a hit, and the MPPDA wasn’t going to let an extended nude scene play in theatres. Joseph Breen, director of public relations of the MPPDA, reported in a memo to the organisation’s president, Will Hays: “The man in the shot wore a loin cloth, but a critical examination of the shot indicated that the woman was stark naked. There were four or five shots of the woman, which the jury referred to repeatedly as ‘frontal’ shots, which showed the front of the woman’s body.”

Though the scene was ordered to be removed from all prints of Tarzan and His Mate, some US territories that had no censor boards included the nude swim. According to film historian Rudy Behlmer, MGM released three different versions of the scene: one in which Jane is fully clothed, one topless and one completely naked. When this was discovered, the scene was ordered to be removed from the film’s negative. It survived in the master positive print, though, and was reinserted when the film was released on home video.

After Tarzan and His Mate, the MPPDA tightened its grip, and Hollywood would no longer be this freely erotic for many years. But the scene survived, as did the legend of Weissmuller, lord of the loincloth. As broadcaster and critic Alistair Cooke wrote at the time: “I don’t suppose many of you have ever been lying around an ocean bed when Johnny Weissmuller was swimming up above. If only for this unique pleasure, anyone who isn’t afraid to enjoy his senses should make a point of doing it now.”

This appeared in Mint.

Brahman Naman: Review


Q. Which 1898 novella by Henry James could serve as an alternate title for a 2016 film by Q?

A. The Turn of the Screw

Both the question-answer device and the deliberately juvenile joke are inspired by Brahman Naman, a comedy about three college-going boys in Bangalore whose lives revolve around sex. Or, more accurately, their lives revolve around not having sex, and very wanting much to. They’re waiting for their turn, and it isn’t pretty. The opening scene of the film is a written title, which describes the male teen as a disastrous “genetic experiment”. It’s a canny stratagem by Q and screenwriter Naman Ramachandran: get the disclaimer out of the way, then go ahead and be as puerile as you like.

This may be a comedy about young men desperate to lose their virginity, but it’s no American Pie. Instead of giving the audience a token good-looking protagonist or a goofily adorable one, Brahman Naman has three intentionally unappealing leads. Naman (Shashank Arora), Ajay (Tanmay Dhanania) and Ramu (Chaitanya Varad) are gawky, superior, insular and casteist. They’re on the quiz team, and their accumulated arcane knowledge spills over in their daily conversation: trivia as a defence mechanism, a shield. One might have felt for them, if they weren’t so damn unpleasant.

Brahman Naman paints the psyche of the average Indian teenager—only the male, sadly—as a minefield of perpetual horniness. Our heroes spend their days in a lust-covered haze: discussing potential sexual conquests, ogling at women, stalking them, masturbating. Harshavardhan Kulkarni’s Hunterr (2015) covered similar territory, sometimes with unexpected resonance, but that was a film made to release in theatres. It could hardly go as far as Q has here, giving us, among other visions previously unimagined, fish in an aquarium nibbling on a male appendage and bringing the semi-aquatic onanist to climax.

Q is nothing if not an envelope-pusher. Here, he adds the following rather dubious achievements to his résumé: a character vomiting up close to the camera, then laying his head in it; masturbation by fridge door, fan and fish; and a remarkably distasteful scene that, had it progressed, would have bordered on rape. The point behind these shenanigans seems to be to show up the ugliness of the Indian male. The few actual female characters—as opposed to the ones that are pure male fantasy—come across as appealing, intelligent and frank about their desires. Which, of course, is too much for our stunted trio to handle.

The film did crack me up intermittently. The writing, when it isn’t going for the easy laugh, is acidulously clever. Though most scenes are shot at a weird tilted angle, Q and Siddhartha Nuni (they share a cinematography credit) and art director Tabasheer Zutshi do manage to give us the impression we’re watching something set in the 1980s (it reminded me of In Which Annie Gives It Those Ones, another English-language Indian film about college students, set in the 1970s but made in the ‘80s). What drove me to distraction, however, was the constant, aggressive stupidity—the feeling that no gag was too ridiculous, no double entendre too tawdry, to merit inclusion. In a way, Brahman Naman is just a much smarter Grand Masti, wearing its crudity and its limited world-view like a badge.

With the release of Gandu in 2010, Q seemed to emerge as that rare figure in Indian cinema: someone whose provocations were genuine. With Brahman Naman, his desire to shock is evidently intact, but as far as Q films about sexual mores go, I much preferred his documentary Love in India, which was less schematic in its boldness and more insightful about our hang-ups. Brahman Naman should have no difficulty finding an audience when it releases on Netflix next week. Yet, there’s some irony in the fact that its likely champions—young males in their teens and 20s sent into splits by the sight of a penis—will be the same demographic the film’s critical of.

Independence Day: Resurgence: Review

Independence Day: Resurgence is so contrived and slow-witted a sequel that it’s making me reassess my fondness for the 1996 film. I was in my early teens when I watched Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day, so the cinematic bar couldn’t have been set too high. Still, I remember it being funny and exciting and Jeff Goldblum being memorably weird. Over the years, I put some ironic distance between myself and the film, but not so much that I couldn’t sit through a couple of scenes when it turned up on TV. Now, 20 years later, Emmerich has essentially made the same film again, and I could barely sit through it.

It isn’t so much that Resurgence lacks originality and verve and feels like it’s been put together by a committee of studio robots. Hollywood has started making a different kind of summer blockbuster now, not necessarily better, but more self-aware and cynical. The kind of square-jawed heroism that Independence Day could get away with in 1996 just looks square now. It’s possible I’m romanticizing the trashy fun of my youth, but even the cheesy scene-stealing lines coming out of Hollywood today aren’t what they used to be. It’s tough to imagine Will Smith in the 1996 film shouting, “Get ready for a close encounter, bitch,” as Dylan Hiller (Jessie Usher) does in this one.

It’s been 20 years since aliens attacked and were defeated. Since then, the world has had an unprecedented two decades of peace, because there’s nothing like Americans waging a war to bring people across the globe together. Now the space invaders are back and—surprise!—they’re smarter and deadlier than they were the last time around. Incredibly, almost all the old gang, with the exception of Smith’s Steven Hiller, is at hand: scientists David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) and Brakish Okun (Brent Spiner); and former US president Thomas Whitmore (Bill Pullman). There are also some new recruits: fighter pilots Jake Morrison (Liam Hemsworth) and Dylan Dubrow-Hiller (Steven’s son), Whitmore’s daughter Patricia (Maika Monroe) and, rather unexpectedly, Charlotte Gainsbourg as Catherine Marceaux, a scientist and former associate of Levinson’s. Two hours and many explosions later, half the world has seemingly been laid to waste, but everyone is happy because the aliens are toast.

It’s incredible that two near-identical Hollywood films made 20 years apart have roughly the same amount of ethnic diversity. Though Smith was the biggest thing to emerge from the first film, there’s still only room for one black character in Resurgence (two, if you count the African warlord played by Deobia Oparei, a character that comes with its own racist overtones). The film can’t even find room for a token Indian scientist; Asia is represented by Chinese pilot Rain Lao (Angelababy) and Europe by Gainsbourg’s Marceaux. Apart from that, everything’s Caucasian and all-American. Yet when they finally emerge victorious, people across the world are shown cheering. The first film ended this way too. It’s a very different world, but some delusions aren’t shaken off easily.

This review appeared in Mint.

Raman Raghav 2.0: Review


As movie-watchers, we’ve grown accustomed to being provided with someone we can root for. Once in a while, this person is the antagonist, someone whose deeds are terrible, but not terrible enough to override our fascination for them. Characterizations of this nature are carefully calibrated: One pictures screenwriter and director mixing six parts brutality with one part tenderness and two parts redemption. Whether it’s Taxi Driver or Ardh Satya, most films, no matter how hard-hitting, will give us a spoonful of sugar with our medicine.

But what if a film serves us our medicine neat? Anurag Kashyap tried this first in Ugly, where each new character was revealed to be more craven and grasping than the last. Now, with Raman Raghav 2.0, he gives viewers a choice between mesmeric, unmotivated evil and banal, calculated evil. He knows most will side with the former—and that’s when he has you exactly where he wants.

Each time serial killer Raman (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) adds another victim to his list, the film forces us to examine our fascination with him. What is it that allows us to feel something else besides revulsion for someone who bludgeons his sister, or kills a young boy? Is it all right to flinch at his brutality in one scene and then enjoy the mind games he plays with the police in the next? When he complains during an interrogation about a police officer not understanding the ras (intricacies) of conversation, I couldn’t help laughing. But it was uneasy laughter, and died as soon as it left my throat.

Raman is no Hannibal Lecter; he has no sophistication, only survival skills. His weapon of choice is a metal pipe, which he drags along the ground, much like Meera dragged her rod at the end of NH10. Unlike Meera, though, Raman doesn’t have any motivation to kill—it’s just something he starts doing, discovers it comes easy and continues with. He’s a terribly unreliable narrator—something the quicksilver Siddiqui has fun with—but the one thing that rings true is when he tells the police that he developed a habit years ago of walking on the black portions whenever the road before him was chequered. It’s easy to imagine all those years of sticking to black and avoiding light warping his mind.

Instead of doing what most film-makers would and giving us something to balance out Raman, Kashyap gives us even more darkness in the form of Raghav (Vicky Kaushal), the inspector in charge of Raman’s case. Though it takes some doing in a film built around a brutal murderer, Raghav actually turns out to be the most distasteful character here—snorting cocaine on the job, making his girlfriend undergo three abortions, and doing some killing of his own. The film sets police and criminal up as mirror images of each other: not a novel idea (it’s been around at least as long as Fritz Lang’s M), but one that’s taken to a surprising, pitch-black conclusion by co-writers Kashyap and Vasan Bala.

Along with That Girl In Yellow Boots and Ugly, Raman Raghav 2.0 forms a loose trilogy of Kashyap films set in modern-day Mumbai. Both visually and spiritually, these are films largely devoid of beauty, hope and humanity. The stories mainly concern outliers, people on the margins of society trying to hustle their way to a better life and, more often than not, failing. The city glimpsed in these films is dirty and desperate, the characters we encounter even more so. Working with Jay Oza instead of his regular cinematographer, Rajeev Ravi, Kashyap edges as far away from the flamboyance of Bombay Velvet as possible; the most ostentatious moment in Raman Raghav 2.0 is the trippy opening credits.

In 1991, Sriram Raghavan directed an hour-long film on the real-life Raman Raghav, a serial killer responsible for a spate of killings in Mumbai in the 1960s. In his version, which never released, Raghubir Yadav played the killer with a chilling, deadpan matter-of-factness. Siddiqui takes a different route: His Raman is all too present in the moment; decisive, self-aware, alert and funnier than he has a right to be. Kaushal commits to a kind of stoic disintegration, which isn’t very exciting. But Siddiqui, a scar across his forehead and a mad gleam in his eyes, is indelible. He’s the first, second and third reason one ought to see Raman Raghav 2.0, which is as unpleasant as it is gleefully amoral and perversely enjoyable.

This review appeared in Mint.