Monday, December 30, 2013

Flashes of Hindi cinema in 2013

Started writing a year-end wrap of sorts, but scrapped it midway. Putting it up here anyway. 



In Indian cinema’s 100th year, things progressed as they always have – in fits and starts. Monster hits like Chennai Express and Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani made one long for a little Whedonesque wit and surprise, but at least they were better than the rank offenders which ended up making tons of money, like Grand Masti and Raanjhanaa. At the other end of spectrum, Indian independent films were feted at Cannes, Sundance, Berlin and Telluride – and, for a change, released theatrically in their own country.

Several filmmakers continued down the path of gender insensitivity. In Chor Chor Super Chor, a lone female passenger on a bus in Delhi at night is pawed at and pushed around in a seemingly unconscious recreation of the December 2012 rape case. Incredibly, this was the setting for a musical number, played for laughs. Grand Masti and Besharam had rape jokes; the latter also had a stalker for a hero. The worst offender, though, was the ‘innocent’ male lead of Raanjhanaa, who stalks his childhood love, drives her into a river, slits his wrists when she rejects him, and sabotages her wedding.



Gangster of the year: Bholi Punjaban, Chadda’s tracksuit-wearing, tattoo-sporting, trash-talking gangster in Fukrey.

Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s “Hello saaar” interrupting Nimrat Kaur’s voiceover; the director’s POV morphing into that of a wedding photographer; the insistent tugging of a string filling in for unnecessary dialogue: All instances of the visual wit that rescued The Lunchbox from disappearing into the melancholia of its characters’ lives.

François Truffaut once divided the films of Orson Welles into those which have snow and those which have guns. Lootera had both guns and snow, but rather than Welles, Vikramaditya Motwane’s impossibly fluent direction brought to mind the melancholy romances of Wong Kar-wai.

The cinematic dust-up of the year occurred when the Film Federation of India sent The Good Road to the Oscars, and the phalanx of producers and promoters associated with The Lunchbox took up arms against them. Just when everyone was tiring of Team Lunchbox’s hissy fit, the FFI fired off a letter so pompous that suddenly, they were the bad guys. Lunchbox director Ritesh Batra put an end to the madness with a terse letter to the Federation, saying he’d moved on to “more productive pursuits”.

You had us at gulabi bhains. No film this year was as willing to risk looking stupid as Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola. 

The ongoing Ali-Frazier battle between Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Irrfan Khan. Siddiqui won the first round with his half hour of mastery in Bombay Talkies. Khan responded with Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster Returns. They sparred with Aatma and D-Day, before going head-to-head in The Lunchbox. Yet, the best performance of the year came from Raj Kumar Yadav in Shahid.  

The Good Road and Ship of Theseus – two films joined at the hip by NFDC’s Film Bazaar, by the fact that they’re both debut features, by travelling shots, by terrific location photography and sound design, and by their contrasting fortunes on Twitter.

It must have been tempting to offer Milkha Singh the excuse of a lifetime – the memory of his father being killed in Partition riots – to absolve him from not placing at the 1976 Olympics. Yet, an excuse is exactly what it is, a bit of creative liberty that’s at odds with the meticulous recreation of other aspects of the runner’s life. If Bhaag Milkha Bhaag runs away with history, Kai Po Che! runs from it. It isn’t like the film refuses to acknowledge the 2002 Gujarat riots, it just refuses to acknowledge them in any meaningful way. After a few minutes of looting and burning, the narrative leaps forward to a teary reconciliation. There’s no rule that says that you must also come to terms with the history you put on screen, but failure to do so does leave one open to allegations of opportunism, or denial, or both.

Shuddh Desi Romance, which blew raspberries at middle-class morality.   


Supporting turns that ran away with films: Saurabh Shukla as a judge who really enjoys his lunch in Jolly LLB; the devastating Prakash Belawadi, running rings around John Abraham in Madras Cafe; Dibyendu Bhattacharya in BA Pass, chess enthusiast, philosopher, pimp.

A nod to PVR’s Director’s Rare banner, which released indie efforts like Tasher Desh and Fruitvale Station, regional films like Baandhon and Lucia, documentaries, restored versions of classics like Chashme Buddoor, and a lot more. Some releases were better than others, but they all had one thing in common – none of them would have gotten a theatrical release under normal circumstances.


The best tribute to Indian cinema in its 100th year wasn’t the much-hyped Bombay Talkies but the unexpected theatrical release of Shivendra Singh Dungarpur’s documentary Celluloid Man, about film archivist PK Nair, preserver of old prints at the National Film Archive in Pune and inspiration to several generations of filmmakers.


And the others: Short Term 12, Blue is the Warmest Color, No, The Selfish Giant, To the Wonder, Before Midnight. My favourite: The Great Beauty.  



Friday, December 27, 2013

What the Fish: Review


There’s been a lot of rubbish on the big screen these past few months. Yet, Gurmmeet Singh’s What the Fish is so irredeemably bad it stands out. For starters, this has to the worst movie title in decades. The plot is excruciatingly predictable. Not one character is worth rooting for. And you can judge its grip on reality by the fact that the tubby Manu Rishi Chadha plays a Casanova.

Sudha Mishra (Dimple Kapadia; bad-tempered and sadly unappealing) has left her house in Vasant Kunj in the hands of her niece’s boyfriend. She leaves two sets of instructions – feed the fish, water the money plant. Of course, in time-honoured tradition, boyfriend organises a party the minute she leaves, and things go south. A half-dozen or so characters, all deeply uninteresting, assume responsibility for home, fish and plant, and fail to do the needful in ways that are the opposite of amusing.

I won’t bother telling you about the Jat in love with a boxer from Manipur and trying to blackmail another boxer with a cross-dressing mujra MMS. Let me point you, instead, towards the rotten heart of the movie. It’s a ten-minute sequence involving a girl from Saharanpur who’s been left in charge of Sudha’s house by her fiancée. To make matters worse, said fiancée’s friend – whom he’d requested to keep an eye on her – comes on strong. There's a stunningly insensitive scene, played for laughs, where the Lothario scares her into inviting him into the house. Amazingly, he then cons his way into her bed. The next morning, instead of feeling violated or, at the very least, guilty, she looks happy. Turns out she’s so simple-minded she assumes that because they slept together, they’re husband and wife now. Welcome to the desert of the really stupid.

This review appeared in Time Out Delhi.

Friday, December 20, 2013

The leaner, fitter biopic

Wrote this for GQ's November issue. 

In 1899, George Méliès, whose fictionalised life story forms a substantial part of Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, directed Jeanne D’Arc.  Thus, it is said, the biopic was born. And they’ve never gone out of fashion. It’s easy to see why: with a biographical film, the broad story has already been written, and the public knows the film’s protagonist and gets to see famous people play other famous people. Also, a cursory glance at the Best Picture Oscar nominees over the years will reveal a long list of biopics and almost-biopics. This is why you’ll mostly see studios release these films in the winter months, along with the other ‘prestige’ films.

Though they continue to be Oscar bait, there’s been a noticeable shift in the way biopics are now cutting through to the heart of their stories. Instead of sweeping summaries like Gandhi, directors today prefer to zero in on key moments in the lives they’re chronicling. We saw this in The King’s Speech, a film about King George VI’s first wartime address to the nation; in Lincoln, which dealt with the passing of the Thirteenth Amendment; in Hitchcock and The Girl, which were about the making of Psycho and The Birds respectively; and in My Week With Marilyn and Hyde Park On Hudson, which focussed on obscure episodes in Monroe and FDR’s lives.  

With social media bridging the gap between idol and follower, it’s hardly surprising that recent biopics have tried to provide audience members with a similar sense of intimacy to the person onscreen. Considering viewers today could, if so moved, confirm the veracity of facts on their phones between scenes, filmmakers are also becoming cannier about the volume of information they’re giving out. All this may mean that the days of the sweeping biographical epic are behind us. Future biopics are more likely to resemble The Queen than Lawrence of Arabia. After his hand in the zeitgeist-defining The Social Network – which tempered the broad scope of its story with sharply focussed storytelling – screenwriter Aaron Sorkin is planning to make his directorial debut with a film on Steve Jobs. It is said to consist of just three conversations, taking place at different times in Jobs’ life.  

That project may be scuttled in the unlikely event of Ashton Kutcher nailing his portrayal of the Apple messiah in Jobs. (It’s unlikely Sorkin’s losing much sleep on that account.) Still, the release of Jobs will open the floodgates for a series of high-profile biopics. Keeping Kelso company in the stunt-casting sweepstakes is Daniel Radcliffe as Allen Ginsberg in Kill Your Darlings. Naomi Watts will make an Oscar bid as Britain’s favourite princess in Diana, while Idris Elba is also likely to bag a nomination as Madiba in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. Meanwhile, in Saving Mr Banks, Tom Hanks will take on the role he was born to play – Walt Disney. Of these, Diana, Saving Mr Banks and Kill Your Darlings revolve around specific periods and incidents in the protagonists’ lives, with only Long Walk to Freedom going the epic route.


Then there are the films about the outliers, the oddballs and the lesser-knowns. This year has already seen the release of Steven Soderbergh’s Behind the Candelabra, with a fantastic turn by Michael Douglas as Liberace, and two European biopics from 2012, Kon-Tiki and Hannah Arendt. Also ready to release – abroad, if not here – are Lovelace, with Amanda Seyfried as the Deep Throat star, and The Fifth Estate, with Benedict Cumberbatch having a bad hair day as Julian Assange. There’s also news of Ben Foster playing Lance Armstrong in a planned Stephen Frears biopic, and the startling casting of André 3000 as Jimi Hendrix.

Though its storytelling was anything but focussed, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag’s killing at the box-office means that a slew of Indian biopics are now on the cards. Akshay Kumar is reportedly playing Dara Singh, and Priyanka Chopra has started training for her role as Mary Kom. In a more palatable piece of casting news, Ranbir Kapoor might play Kishore Kumar in Anurag Basu’s next. There’s a rumoured Guru Dutt tribute in the pipeline, too. Plus, Shivendra Singh Dungarpur is planning to follow Celluloid Man (see box) with another bio-documentary – on Jiří Menzel, no less.

It’ll be interesting to see if any of the upcoming Indian biopics gamble on a warts-and-all presentation of their subject. Bhaag Milkha Bhaag flirted with the idea but never really followed through; young, knife-wielding Milkha is passed off as a rebel. And the Silk Smitha semi-biopic Dirty Picture didn't go anywhere as far as PT Anderson's Boogie Nights, which sets the porn industry up as a dream factory and then punctures the bubble. Chittagong and Paan Singh Tomar presented more rounded portraits, but couldn’t resist flattering their heroes. It’s been argued that Indians are a shade too respectful to make censorious films about public figures. Here’s hoping for a little less respect, and better biopics.  



Five documentary biopics you need to see

Celluloid Man (2012)
Shivendra Singh Dungarpur’s film is a wonderful tribute to archivist PK Nair and to Indian cinema in its 100th year.

Crumb (1994)
A sly and subtly devastating documentary by Terry Zwigoff about a sly and subtly devastating man, the cartoonist R Crumb.

My Best Fiend (1999)
Not strictly a biopic, this portrait of mercurial German actor Klaus Kinski by his “best fiend” (“friend” in German), director Werner Herzog, teeters between the scary and the sublime.

Senna (2010)
Asif Kapadia took the bold step of not having any voiceover narration for his documentary on Ayrton Senna, relying instead on old interviews and race footage.

Stories We Tell (2013)
In her rapturously received non-fiction debut, Sarah Polley turns the spotlight on her parents and their secrets.


Monday, December 2, 2013

Bullett Raja: Review


Ten years after Haasil, the curse of Ashutosh Rana returns to haunt Tigmanshu Dhulia. In that 2003 film, the rivalry of Ashutosh Rana and Irrfan Khan is brought to a screeching halt around half-time when one half of the equation is eliminated. It was a bold move, but cost the film a good deal of intensity. Something similar happens halfway through Bullett Raja, and again, it proceeds like all the air has been let out.

Raja (Saif Ali Khan) and Rudra (Jimmy Sheirgill) are political commandos – in reality, mid-level thugs who roam around Lucknow providing political protection and intimidation. They’re a Hindi heartland Butch Cassidy and Sundance, outlaws who’re more concerned with their legend than their mission, wisecracking as they shoot, mistrustful of what women might do to their dynamic. When they’re both onscreen, the film has a genial crackle. When it’s only Saif, however, Bullett Raja isn’t too much different from Dabangg or any of the others that have followed in its wake.

In interviews leading up to its release, Dhulia explained how Bullett Raja was his version of a commercial Bollywood film. Unless you’re looking too carefully – and because it’s Dhulia, people will – it might seem like anyone’s idea of a typical masala entertainer. Even when Bullett Raja subverts, it does so by degrees. The heroine doesn’t simper or fawn over the hero, but her “honour” is still the driving force behind a key scene. Ravi Kishan turns up as a contract killer in drag (which leads to a fun scene with two sari-clad figures canoodling on a bed), but becomes a stock villain after a while. At least Sheirgill’s dry asides act as a deflator for Raja’s boasts.

Dhulia seems to be enjoying himself doing all the silly stuff he doesn’t get to indulge in in his more realistic films. A song sequence in Kolkata has glass exploding in slo-mo, rows of choreographed yellow taxis, and Raja and his Bengali girlfriend Mitali (Sonakshi Sinha) going through about six wardrobe changes. The fight scenes are loud and explosive – and completely incoherent. If the action movie is here to stay for the foreseeable future, can directors please construct sequences that honour spatial geography, if not the laws of gravity and common sense? Bullett Raja’s shootouts and fight scenes are, essentially, cheating – cutting from Raja and Rudra jumping to their opponents flying through the air is neither a thrill, nor an explanation as to what happened.

Khan does a reasonable job of making Raja less of a showboat than Chulbul Pandey or Tees Maar Khan, but Langda Tyagi he ain’t. Sheirgill, who usually reserves his best for Dhulia, is a blast. Chunky Pandey’s brief cameo is amusing, if really strange; Gulshan Grover’s is nostalgic in its hamminess. Vidyut Jamwal, whose Kalaripayattu-inspired fighting skills adds another layer of unreality to the action sequences, turns up as a super-cop. If there’s something important to be said about Sinha’s performance, I’m not sure what that is. In fact, the film left me with roughly the same feelings. Like Kishan’s assassin, Bullett Raja – despite an amusing first half – is a Dhulia film in commercial drag.

This review appeared in Time Out Delhi.

Gori Tere Pyaar Mein: Review


This is what happens when a production house best known for its stories about the rich and the indolent trains its sights on the downtrodden. The message of Gori Tere Pyaar Mein, Punit Malhotra’s second film with Dharma Productions, seems to be “It takes a village”. But what the film is really saying is that village-dwellers can’t solve their own problems without the help of someone from the city, no matter how unmotivated or under-qualified these saviors might be.

But the village is just a prop anyway, a device to help Sriram (Imran Khan, an unconvincing Iyer) find the human being hidden deep inside his lazy, narcissistic self. Sriram is there to convince “activist” – and occasional midwife – Dia (Kareena Kapoor Khan) to forsake her do-gooding in the Gujarati village of Jhumli and come home. Years ago, the two were in a relationship which ended badly; the details of this take up the marginally superior first half. Now, he must win her love back by getting a bridge built for the villagers. Isn’t it just super-convenient that he has an architecture degree up his sleeve?

None of this, as you may have guessed, is remotely interesting. Kapoor acts like she’s still on the sets of Satyagraha, while Khan keeps winking at the camera like it's his friend. There are small roles for Shraddha Kapoor and Anupam Kher, but the only actor who makes any impact is Nizhalgal Ravi, a veteran of Tamil and Telugu cinema, as Sriram's father. It’s a wonder a film this slight and insubstantial can still go on for two-and-a-half hours, but it does. However, by the time a teary village kid tells Sriram – who’s just sold off their land to have a chemical factory built on it – that he wants to “be like you bro”, many in the audience may have exercised their right to get up and leave.

This review appeared in Time Out Delhi.