Monday, January 20, 2014

Om-Dar-Ba-Dar: Review

Kamal Swaroop’s Om-Dar-Ba-Dar  was never released commercially in India. After premiering at the 1988 Berlin Film Festival, it did a couple of rounds of the arthouse circuit and vanished from view. In the years since, it somehow got the reputation of being Indian cinema’s great avant-garde masterpiece. Filmmakers and critics spoke of it in hushed tones; Anurag Kashyap even paid tribute to it with the “Emosanal Attyachar” sequence in Dev.D. Now, with PVR and NFDC re-releasing the film in theatres, we have the sad duty of informing you that Om-Dar-Ba-Dar, while undeniably strange and uncompromised, is also vague, tedious and bordering on pretentious.

Any attempts to relay a plot would only serve to vindicate Swaroop’s wilfully scattershot narrative strategy. Suffice to say that the film consists of a series of vignettes involving a boy called Om, his palmist father, his 30-year-old sister, their movie star house guest, and a whole lot of frogs. You might want to make sense of it all – and good luck to you. We waited in vain for an underlying focus to emerge and bring some clarity to all the Jungian posturing. (We would have settled for no focus and great entertainment, but the film's satire is too heavy-handed to be much fun.) Swaroop is clearly aiming a several targets – the school system, the Congress government, the commercialisation of the Ajmer region the film is set in – but his attacks are simplistic, often infantile. You know there’s a paucity of good ideas when the level of satire has dropped to a man shitting diamonds.

These muddled ideas are delivered by actors rendered catatonic either by design or by the effort of making sense of the enterprise (the exception is Anita Kanwar, who shone in Salaam Bombay! the same year). The film certainly has the courage of its crazy convictions: it is genuinely, hair-clutchingly strange. You could look for years and not find another film made in this country that brings within its ambit terrorist tadpoles and family planning, space travel and double-knotted pyjamas. There are also brief moments when everyday small-town life is refracted into something monstrous and magical. The cinematography, by Ashwin Kaul and Milind Ranade, is frequently astonishing, and provides something to hold onto whenever the film wanders off on one of its many, many spaced-out trips.

If only there’d been a little less invention and a little more organisation of thought, Om-Dar-Ba-Dar might actually have ended up the subversive masterpiece so many are convinced it is. One need only see Salvador Dali and Luis Bunuel’s Un Chien Andalou or anything by Jean Cocteau to understand why Swaroop’s film isn't the real deal. It’s not even the first avant-garde film made in India: SNS Sastry and Pramod Pati’s shorts for Films Division in the late ‘60s were just as trippy – and far more fun. Re-releases of cult Indian films are few and far between, so we won’t go as far as advising you to avoid Om-Dar-Ba-Dar. Just remember that you don’t have to be bullied into liking it.

This review appeared in Time Out Delhi.  

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Straight to video

This piece appeared in GQ's January issue and on their site

Last August, the trailer for Spike Jonze’s Her appeared and thrilled fans of the director who’d waited the requisite four years for his next film to surface. Jonze made a remarkable debut 15 years earlier with a Charlie Kaufman-penned story about a vent in an office that transports people inside the head of actor John Malkovich. Though Being John Malkovich marked him out as a bracingly original voice – something confirmed by his later movies Adaptation and Where the Wild Things Are – Jonze was famous long before 1999. If you grew up during MTV’s initial days in India, you might have seen the video for Sonic Youth’s “100%”, with a skateboarding Jason Lee, or the one for The Breeders’ 1993 smash “Cannonball”. Both are by Jonze.

As he became better known, Jonze was able to stretch out and experiment with the form: “Sabotage” was a parody of 1970s cop shows, “Buddy Holly” was made to look part of a Happy Days episode. Working mostly with alt and indie bands, Jonze’s work was oddball but heartfelt – qualities also evident in his films. His video for Fatboy Slim’s “Praise You” showed an inept (and fictional) dance group rehearsing in public. In someone else’s hands, it would have been a good gag, but Jonze managed to turn it into a celebration of the joy of performance. It was voted the number one video of all time in a 2001 MTV poll.

Jonze is one of the directors who marked the beginning of the “auteur” generation of music videos, where the maker’s personality informed the output. An accepted signpost is 1992, the year when MTV started mentioning the names of directors along with the singers. However, even MTV’s first decade yielded some major Hollywood players. Any random hour of MTV Classic is likely to have a David Fincher contribution: he was responsible for Don Henley’s “The End of the Innocence” and Aerosmith’s “Janie’s Got a Gun”. By the time he made his film debut with Alien 3 in 1992, Fincher was already developing that dark, glossy look he’d use in Se7en and Fight Club: you can see it in Madonna’s “Express Yourself” and Billy Idol’s “Cradle of Love”. Michael Bay also started out in the late '80s; his mini-movie for Meatloaf’s “I’d Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That)” was as cheesy and high-octane as any of his Transformers films.

Another contemporary filmmaker to make the transition from music videos to features and retain some measure of signature style is Michel Gondry. The Frenchman was the Jan Švankmajer of the music video; like the Czech surrealist, he used lo-fi visual effects to create a distorted, beyond-the-looking-glass world. The constant changes in scenery in his recent film Mood Indigo are in a similar vein to his innovations for Bjork’s “Human Behaviour”, while his very affecting video for Gary Jules’ “Mad World” points to the melancholia of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine), Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast) and Anton Corbijn (Control) have also taken aspects of their video-making style and put them in their films.

Is there a certain music video director approach to filmmaking? One could draw parallels between the films of Dayton-Farris and Mike Mills, or Corbijn and Mark Romanek, but such comparisons can be more misleading than helpful. For every example of a former video director cutting to music, you have a Wes Anderson (who’s never made a music video) doing the same, only better. More to the point is the way video and cinema have kept influencing each other. MTV-style editing is ubiquitous in cinema today, but its roots lie in Soviet filmmakers’ experiments with montage in the 1920s. A Hard Day’s Night, the 1964 film starring the Beatles, was a major influence on the genre, as were DA Pennebaker’s vérité documentaries. Music videos, in turn, have given cinema new directors, sounds, faces, slogans, moves. It may have killed the radio star, but video is certainly repaying its debt to the movies.

Five videos you didn’t know were by famous directors

“Under the Bridge” (Gus Van Sant)
Gus Van Sant (Elephant, Milk) directed this uncharacteristically calm RHCP video. He also cast bassist Flea in My Own Private Idaho.

“I Just Don’t Know What to Do with Myself” (Sofia Coppola)
Reasons to watch: It’s a bonkers cover of a Burt Bacharach song by The White Stripes; it’s by the director of Lost in Translation; it has a pole-dancing Kate Moss

“Sunday” (Harmony Korine)
A typically unsettling video for Sonic Youth by the director of Spring Breakers, featuring Macaulay Culkin

“Fight the Power” (Spike Lee)
Since it was Lee who asked Chuck D to come up with an anthem for Do The Right Thing, it makes sense that he’d direct the video

“Dyslexic Heart” (Cameron Crowe)
The Almost Famous director made this warm video for Paul Westerberg’s “Dyslexic Heart”, featured on the soundtrack of his 1992 film Singles

Monday, January 13, 2014

Dedh Ishqiya: Review

We first encountered the uncle-nephew conman team of Babban (Arshad Warsi) and Khalujan (Naseeruddin Shah) in Ishqiya, the 2010 debut of former Vishal Bhardwaj aide Abhishek Chaubey. That cheerfully profane film introduced, among other things, the idea of a foul-mouthed heroine to mainstream Hindi cinema. Defenders of public decency will be relieved to know that its sequel Dedh Ishqiya has a lot of shayari and very little by way of “chutiyam sulphate”. Yet, if you look beneath all the Urdu poetici­sing, you’ll find that the lusts and orneriness of the earlier film are very much intact.

Dedh Ishqiya starts off with a robbery, during which Babban and his uncle are separated. The scruffy Khalu resurfaces as Ifthekhar, a dapper poet vying – in a shayar showdown of sorts – for the hand of the widowed
begum of Mahmoodabad (Madhuri Dixit-Nene). Nephew tracks down uncle, and discovers that while the elderly con is genuinely infatuated with Begum Para, he also has an eye on her fortune. Babban finds his own object of desire in Muniya (Huma Qureshi), Para’s handmaid, who naturally harbours agendas of her own. There’s also Jaan Mohammad (Vijay Raaz), a thuggish local MLA and rival suitor of the begum. What’s the Urdu for “double-cross” again?

There’s the cinema of big payoffs, and there’s the cinema of small pleasures. At its best, Dedh Ishqiya is one example after another of the latter. These pleasures could be as simple as Ifthekhar being diagnosed by an ancient hakim as “mareez-e-ishq”, or an elaborate gag like the Mexican standoff that lasts through the night. Some viewers might find their bliss in the refined lilt and subtle allusions of Chaubey and Bhardwaj’s script, where the pointed use of a word like “lihaaf” can function as a nod to a 1942 Ismat Chughtai short story. Chaubey’s narrative control has grown more assured since his debut, and though the film goes off the rails in the last ten minutes, it’s still massively enjoyable. Bhar­dwaj’s lines and Gulzar’s lyrics take centrestage, as they ought to, but do take a moment to note the fine work by Clinton Cerejo (score), Subrata Chakraborthy and Amit Roy (production design) and Setu (cinematography).

Warsi and Shah, having done the hard work in Ishqiya, coast through this film. Shah in particular performs with uncharacteristic tenderness; it helps that he doesn’t have to overreach while speaking chaste Urdu. Qureshi and Raaz keep their faces straight and their cards close to their chest. As for Dixit, this is that one sublime performance to accompany her dozens of hits from the ’80s and ’90s. As befits one of Indian cinema’s best dancers, she’s holding us with the eyes; we see the loneliness and desperation in them, long before motivations are explained and secrets revealed. It’s difficult to look at anything else when she’s onscreen. 

Ismat Chughtai's Lihaaf.

Review appeared in Time Out Delhi. 

Friday, January 10, 2014

Mr Joe B Carvalho: Review

In interviews leading up to its release, Arshad Warsi suggested that his latest had been designed as an antidote to crass, double entendre-wielding films. Mr Joe B Carvalho is certainly cleaner than the average Bollywood comedy nowadays, but something’s been lost in the rinsing. A foul mouth isn’t a crime, an unfunny one is. In that respect, this film, directed by Samir Tewari, is as guilty as Grand Masti.

Joe B Carvalho (Arshad Warsi) is a bumbling detective who’s been hired by a rich old man to find his daughter. This is roughly the task given to Phillip Marlowe in The Big Sleep, though that’s about it as far as similarities with Howard Hawks’ sublime 1946 film go. Mr Joe B Carvalho is, as you might expect, a straight lift from the Pink Panther series: the poster, the bluesy sax in the title theme, and half a dozen scenes not so much inspired as translated and transplanted.

It’s a pity, because Arshad Warsi doesn’t look bad even in borrowed clothes (Jolly LLB didn’t suffer from stealing from My Cousin Vinny). There are moments when his commitment to the most insubstantial of jokes lifts the film off the ground. Yet, in scene after scene, it crashes, weighed down by dragged-out routines and an over-populated plot that includes a schizophrenic assassin (Javed Jaffrey), a “dabangg” lady police officer (Soha Ali Khan) and several assorted villains, including a wasted Vijay Raaz.

There is one truly bright spark in the film. Jaffrey’s performance brings back memories of the time he turned a VJing gig into a variety show with Timex Timepass. In this film, he turns up as a bai, a sadhu, a blonde girl and a man with a giant afro, in addition to supplying the voices playing in his head. One could make a case for the elevation of his Carlos to the pantheon of incompetent Hindi movie assassins, along with Tinnu Anand’s ice-pick killer in Pushpak and Anupam Kher’s deleted, never-seen cameo as “Disco Killer” in Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro.

This review appeared in Time Out Delhi.