Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Five films that share DNA with Snowpiercer

Bong Joon-ho got the inspiration for Snowpiercer from a French graphic novel called Le Transperceneige. This three-part series by Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette is set on a train with a perpetual motion engine in a post-apocalyptic world. Bong and screenwriter Kelly Masterson took the basic idea of an ice age caused by an experiment gone wrong and a train housing the remnants of humanity, and expanded on it, adding layers of satire and philosophical ruminations over the nature of class struggle. In the film, the elite occupy the luxury carriages at the front of the Snowpiercer train, while the underclass suffers in the 'tail section'. Under the reluctant leadership of Curtis (Chris Evans), the oppressed storm the prison section and free Namgoong (Song Kang-ho), the man who designed the train's security system. But that's only the start of their troubles...

Though Snowpiercer is mostly in English and has an American actor in the lead, it released first in South Korea, Bong's native country, in August last year. Despite its strong showing at the Asian box-office and the critical hosannas it received at various festival screenings, an Indian theatrical release does not appear to be on the horizon. This is a pity: Snowpiercer is a singular, striking film which deserves to be seen on the largest screen possible. Like Bong's other experiments with genre (Memories of Murder, The Host), it is both unique and indebted to other, similar films. Here are five close and distant cousins of Snowpiercer. 

Metropolis (1927)

Every sci-fi film made after 1927 owes at least something to Fritz Lang's silent classic. But Snowpiercer is especially reminiscent of Metropolis; both films ground their sci-fi stylings in tales of class conflict, crudely outlining the disparity between the vulgar rich and desperate poor (bizarrely, both films also feature the sacrifice of a hand). Hoo's film is also shot through with a very Langian pessimism; in Metropolis, the workers are relegated to "their proper place, the depths", while the evil bureaucrat Mason (an almost unrecognisable Tilda Swinton) in Snowpiercer tells an angry throng, "We must occupy our preordained position. I belong to the front, you belong to the tail." 

Children of Men (2006) 

In its first half, Snowpiercer recalls the grungy, gritty vision of the future that Alfonso Cuaron put forward so convincingly in Children of Men. The colour palate — all greys and dirty browns — is the same, as is the idea of the government as a violent Big Brother and society as a police state. The threat of extinction provides the motive force in both films — a permanent ice age in Snowpiercer, world-wide infertility in Children of Men. They're also linked by the kinetic energy of their action sequences, even though Bong prefers stylised fights with a lot of cuts, while Cuaron opts for long-take, documentary-style realism (it's one of few films I've seen that allows blood to spatter on the camera lens — and stay there).

The Truman Show (1998)

Like the artificial reality-show universe in The Truman Show, Snowpiercer uses its enclosed setting as a microcosm — and satire — of the world at large. Bong deploys Alison Pill's batty schoolteacher in much the same way as Peter Weir did Laura Linney in The Truman Show: a parody of all-American wholesomeness that twists unexpectedly in another direction. The two films are also linked by the presence of Ed Harris, whose turn as a soft-spoken but ruthless visionary in Snowpiercer is a variation on Christof, the character he played in The Truman Show.

Soylent Green (1973)

In the sci-fi film pantheon, Soylent Green occupies a comfortable middle rung. Solid but hardly dazzling, it owes its fame to a remarkably disturbing ending in which Charlton Heston's detective discovers the dark secret behind the food substitute called Soylent Green. Whether intentional or not, there's a moment in Snowpiercer involving a substance called Protein Block that could easily qualify as a tribute to that scene. There's an even darker moment of revelation towards the end of the film, one that brings into sharp relief a phrase that's repeated several times during the film — "Know your place".

The Raid: Redemption (2011)

The only real connection between Gareth Evans' supremely violent martial arts cop flick and Snowpiercer is their shared membership of an unlikely action movie genre — the "people travelling the length of an enclosed space and killing everything along the way" film. While The Raid and Pete Travis' 2012 Dredd had the good guys slaughtering their way up high-rises, Snowpiercer takes Curtis and his cohorts from the back of the train to the engine room (the film's tagline is "Fight your way to the front"). On the way, they encounter sharpshooters, armed militia and masked men with axes and night-vision goggles, an opportunity for Bong to unleash several scenes of stylised hyperviolence.

This piece appeared in Sunday Guardian.  Snowpiercer is out on DVD in India.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Mary Kom: Review

Somewhere around the one-hour mark in Mary Kom, the boxer's first world championship win is re-enacted. The film crosscuts between the fight and Kom's friends and family cheering her on back home; all except her father, who doesn't approve of his daughter's choice of career. Yet, when he does start watching, Kom, till then on the receiving end, suddenly accesses the strength to fight back and win. Not content with one ode to the transformative powers of telepathy, director Omung Kumar repeats the same thing an hour later, this time with a dying baby and a battered Kom in her fourth world championship. By then, it's the audience that's down for the count.
MC Mary Kom's journey from poverty in strife-ridden Manipur to five world championship titles and an Olympic bronze is one of the great soul-stirring narratives of Indian sport. All Kumar had to do was tell her story straight. Instead, he falls into the same trap that Bhaag Milkha Bhaag did — second guessing first-rate material, embellishing and editorialising, adding drama where drama already exists. Kom's battles with callous officials, her championing of her home state, her post-pregnancy comeback are transformed into awkward Bollywood showdowns. The result is an incomplete, often incoherent, portrait of an impossibly eventful life.
Mary Kom has pretty much every sports movie cliché you'd care to name: the hot-headed young student, the grizzled coach, the obligatory training montage, the equally obligatory stamina-building-in-rough-terrain montage. Yet, unlike recent Bollywood productions that have gotten their sporting mechanics right (Chak De India!, Paan Singh Tomar), Mary Kom is never convincing as a boxing film. We're told next to nothing about Kom's fighting style or the kind of tactics she employed; her devastating left hook is mentioned just once in the whole movie. Even Kom's coach rarely says anything more insightful than "Keep your guard up" or "Don't lose focus". I learnt more about ice hockey from watching The Mighty Ducks than I did about boxing from Mary Kom.
Almost every aspect of the film reveals a singular lack of imagination. In the scene where the coach asks Kom why she wants to box, the film's three writers can only offer a weak "I love boxing. I love boxing..." The visual scheme is repetitive and uninspired: the stadia all look the same, and each new destination is introduced the same way — a shot of the city at night and some time-lapse traffic. The camerawork is shaky to a fault, especially in the beginning; the editing is deliberately fractured (it's the only way to make Chopra look convincing as a boxer). The one visual flourish that sticks out is borrowed — the reverse swan dive from Million Dollar Baby.
Priyanka Chopra tries so hard to do justice to her role that after the while, all one can see is the effort. Everything she does looks rehearsed: tears, smiles, flashes of anger all arrive on cue, exactly when you expect them to. Chopra is so hell-bent on delivering a performance for the ages that she forgets to relax; she's so keyed up, even her coughs sound fake. Darshan Kumar is pleasantly low-key as Kom's husband Onler, though Kenny Basumatary, who plays his friend, might have brought some comic energy to the role. Sunil Thapa is a growling, glowering caricature of a tough coach.
Priyanka Chopra as Mary Kom was always going to be a compromise, but seeing her on screen, speaking in artfully broken Hindi, looking nothing like the real-life Kom or the actors playing her mother and friends, her presence in the film felt more than unnatural — it was close to offensive. How many actors with at least a passing resemblance to Kom were considered for the role? In one scene, Kom accuses a selection panel of racism. It's a charge that might be levelled against the film itself. Mary Kom is blackface without the makeup.
This review appeared in The Sunday Guardian.

The Lego Movie

Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, the directing team behind 21 Jump Street and its recent sequel, are at their best when coaxing their films into an amiable frenzy. The Lego Movie marks their return to animation after 2009’s Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, and what a return it is. When Miller and Lord are really cooking, the sight gags and one-liners come at you so fast it’s like a 1930s screwball comedy crossed with a Michel Gondry music video.The Lego Movie could have been an easy shill for a company that’s had a well-deserved corner on the toy market for decades. Instead, it’s one of the quickest-witted animated movies in recent years.
Emmet (voiced by Chris Pratt), an ordinary worker in a consumerist-bordering-on-collectivist society, finds himself in over his head when he’s chosen as the leader of the rebellion against the evil President Business. His journey from everyguy to savior is an excuse to send us careening through a series of outlandish landscapes, all designed to look like they’re created out of Lego. (Lord and Miller also gave the film the feel of stop-motion animation to further the building block effect.) The film barely pauses for breath, and by the end, there are a dozen or so characters fighting to get a punchline in.
The one concession the movie makes towards its market comes close to ruining everything. I doubt my six-year-old self would have felt the need for an “explanation” of the inspired madness that had come before, let alone one as treacly as this. But apart from that, everything’s pure gold: the constant changes in scenery and structure (animation by Australian visual effects studio Animal Logic), the very droll voice work of Morgan Freeman, Alison Brie, Will Arnett and Liam Neeson (as Bad Cop/ Good Cop), the pop culture nods to everything from Hello Kitty to the gravel voice Christian Bale adopted in his Batman movies. The bonus features on the DVD are paltry, but if you don’t mind shelling out, the Blu-Ray version is bursting with extras. 
This review appeared in Time Out Delhi.

Thursday, September 4, 2014


The bread isn’t the only thing that’s flat in Akshay Akkineni’s debut film, a remake of Karthik Subbaraj’s Tamil hit from 2012. Like the films of its co-producer Bejoy Nambiar, Pizza is big on visual trickery and distressingly casual as far as things like plot and credulity are concerned. This is supposed to be a new-age horror film, but in the end, the scares are all dressed-up Ramsay rehashes. Time and again, the lights go out and we’re drawn into a close-up that practically screams “There’s something just beyond the frame”. Then, right on cue, the soundtrack explodes and the camera does a whip pan to a blood-speckled zombie figure. And we move on to the next obvious ghost.

Pizza has a reasonably strong first half hour. Kunal, played by the light-eyed, blank-faced Akshay Oberoi, is a pizza delivery boy who’s having some trouble with nightmares. He’s in a live-in relationship with Nikita (Parvathy Omanakuttan), a horror enthusiast. There’s an attempt to psychologically ground the film in male fears of pregnancy – when Nikita announces she’s having a baby, Kunal suddenly starts seeing scary pregnant women everywhere. But once he finds himself stuck inside a haunted house and chased around by a series of ghosts from central casting, Pizza becomes just another screechy tantriks-and-daayans affair.

Our biggest problem with Pizza – and this is a huge spoiler – is the way the entire film is revealed to be one big lie. It turns out Kunal and Nikita made up the story about the ghosts in order to pull off a diamond heist (don’t ask). It’s a sign of the supreme contempt the film has for its audience that the haunting isn’t even presented as a flashback. Kunal doesn’t narrate the incidents to anyone (thus allowing for the possibility of his being an unreliable narrator), he just experiences them. It’s an awful trick – unconvincing and cheap. “It has to be something believable,” Nikita tells her partner when he asks her to concoct the story. One can only hope she’s kidding.

This review appeared in Time Out.

Brass over gold: Gulzar and the item song

Wrote this for Motherland's 'Item' issue

I remember the first time I saw Omkara. It was a July afternoon in 2006. Despite an unusually rowdy crowd at PVR Priya, and the fact that we were in the front row, craning our necks to make sense of the giant figures looming over us, I thoroughly enjoyed the film. Later that evening, raving about it to a friend, I mentioned something about the unusually direct nature of Beedi's lyrics. My friend agreed, but said she hoped I knew that “Namak” was the real deal. “Namak ishq ka,” she said. “The salt of love. On her tongue.” I shook my head, puzzled. She looked at me pityingly. “Nigal gai main. She swallowed. Get it?”


It wasn’t just the forthrightness of the words that surprised me. It was that their author was a seventy-something man, known for his screenplays for Hrishikesh Mukherjee, his own sensitive, complex films and his versatile, literate songwriting. Over the last decade or so, it’s become standard practice to mention all of Gulzar’s ‘respectable’ achievements, then add something along the lines of “...and he also writes item numbers”. But anyone who’s taken the trouble of actually listening to the words will tell you that Gulzar doesn’t just write item songs. He writes the best item songs, ones that are smarter and sexier that those penned by lyricists 40 years younger.

The song that changed everything – for Gulzar, at least – was the big hit from Shaad Ali’s Bunty Aur Babli (2005). Even today, “Kajra Re” is a dance-floor favourite, performed as enthusiastically by men in drag as it is by women. The bar dance in the film had Aishwarya Rai making a guest appearance (a Bollywood item song trope that goes back to Cuckoo and Helen), dancing with Bachchan Sr and Jr. The singer was Alisha Chinoy, whose music videos as a pop artist a decade ago had been quasi-items in themselves.

Gulzar’s opening couplet sets the tone – poetic and lightly suggestive: “Aisi nazar se dekha uss zaalim ne chowk par/ Humne kaleja rakh diya chaaku ki nok par” [He looked at me in such a way/ I placed my heart over the knife’s tip]. The cry of “raita phail gaya” that follows is as apt for the Uttar Pradesh setting of the film as it is surprising coming from Gulzar. “Kajra Re” is, in essence, a come-on from a woman who’s fallen for a no-good charmer and who’s now getting impatient; “Meri angdai na toote tu aaja” [I’m stretched out and waiting, come to me], she coos repeatedly. The lyrics combine high and low Hindi and even a little English (a college friend of mine, unwilling to believe that Gulzar could pen something like “Aankhen bhi kamaal karti hain/ Personal se sawal karti hain” [Eyes are also wonderful things/ They ask personal questions], insisted that the phrase was ‘prashn se sawal’). The song also name-checks Dariba Kalan and Ballimaran, those most poetically named Old Delhi streets, the latter of which was home to Gulzar’s great hero, Mirza Ghalib.

Though “Kajra Re” is often identified as his first swing at the genre, Gulzar actually crossed over to the dark side with Dil Se.. (1998). This Mani Ratnam film was his maiden collaboration with AR Rahman and, though few noted it at the time, the first time he’d write something in the ballpark of an item song. “Jiya Jale” met several of the genre’s criteria: it had skin (more Shah Rukh Khan than Preity Zinta), scenery (the backwaters of Kerala) and some very racy lyrics (“honth sil jaate unke narm hothon se” [my lips get sewn to his tender lips]). Dil Se.. also yielded the spectacular, train-top “Chaiyya Chaiyya”. The lyrics, adapted from a poem by Baba Bulle Shah, are largely in Urdu – but this isn’t the Urdu of Mughal-e-Azam and Pakeezah; instead, the words are robust, muscular; closer in spirit to Punjabi. Keeping Rahman’s pounding rhythm as a base, Gulzar wrote lines that were percussive and fluent, full of internal rhymes (“shaam raat/ meri kainath”; “ishq ki chaaon/ paon”) and his trademark unusual phrasing (“yaar misaal-e-oes chale” [my love walks like the dew]).

“Chaiyya Chaiyya” is a good old-fashioned showstopper; it was used by Spike Lee for the opening of his 2006 film Inside Man and by Rahman himself for his Broadway musical Bombay Dreams. Ten years later Ratnam’s film released, Rahman and Gulzar collaborated on another song that saw even greater international success. “Jai Ho” was written for, and used in the closing moments of Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire. Again, Gulzar’s grasp of metre gives the song an irresistible forward momentum; it’s some kind of bliss to hear lines as flowing as “Ratti-ratti sachchi maine jaan gawaayi hai/ Nach-nach koylon pe raat bitayi hai” [Bit by bit, I’ve given up my life/ I’ve spent entire nights dancing on coals]. The song, which unites characters dead and alive in one final choreographed hurrah, is the most Bollywood moment in Boyle’s film – separate from the story, yet also an inextricable part of it. In other words, an item number, albeit an Oscar and a Grammy-winning one.

Fruitful as his partnership with Rahman has been – their other credits include Saathiya (2002), Guru (2007), Raavan (2010) and Jab Tak Hai Jaan (2012) – Gulzar’s closest collaborator in recent years has been composer-director Vishal Bhardwaj. Long before Bhardwaj began directing, they worked together on the title song for the animated Jungle Book series, a mainstay of pre-cable television viewing in India. That little bit of nonsense rhyme is significant – there’s a leap that can be made from “chaddhi pehen ke phool khila hai” [there’s a flower wearing knickers in bloom] to “jigar maa badi aag hai” [there’s a great fire in my body] from “Beedi”. The underlying emotions are, of course, chalk and cheese, but there’s a certain unabashedness and sense of mischief that links these two sentiments.

“Beedi” is the acid test for people with fixed ideas about what a septuagenarian poet (and Dadasaheb Phalke awardee) should or shouldn’t be writing. Gulzar said as much in an interview to Little India, asking why people couldn’t “abandon their ghisa-pita and archaic ideas about how poetry should be written and how poets should look and live”. The song grew out of a Bhardwaj request to Gulzar to write a hit for his 2006 film Omakra along the lines of “Paan Khaye Saiyan Hamaaro” [from 1966’s Teesri Kasam] and “Jhumka Gira Re, Bareli Ke Bazaar Mein” [from 1966’s Mera Saaya]. Gulzar called him the next day and recited the opening stanza, which uses the borrowing of burning coal as a metaphor for sneaking around: “Na gilaaf na lihaaf, thandi hawa ke khilaaf, sasuri/ Itni sardi kisi ka lihaaf lei le/ Ja padosi ke chulhe se aag lei le” [No cover, no shelter, against the damn wind/ It’s so cold I could take someone else’s covering/ Or use the heat from my neighbour’s stove].

Even before the famous chorus arrives, it’s obvious we’ve moved beyond the veiled suggestions of “Kajra Re”. This is partly a function of the film’s setting – unlike the movie-set UP of Bunty Aur Babli, the action in Omkara takes place in an authentically gritty recreation of the state’s hinterland. Gulzar, to his credit, stays faithful to the rough, violent aesthetic of the film. “For too long, we’ve had characters singing poetry that doesn’t suit them. It’s time for lyrics to reflect the way the characters speak in the rest of the film,” Gulzar said in an interview a couple of months after the film released. He added, “As a lyricist it’s my job to sublimate my poetry into the requirement of the characters and the plot.”

This sublimation has happened time and again. “Jab Bhi Ciggaret”, written for Anurag Kashyap’s No Smoking (2007), crystallises, through a series of smoking metaphors, the self-defeating allure of one last drag. It’s one of the stranger item numbers you’ll see: a jazzy torch song with playback by Adnan Sami but lip-synched onscreen, Cabaret-style, by Jesse Randhawa. “Phir kisine jalali ek diyasalai/ Aasman jal utha hai/ Saamne jhaag udai” [Who lit a match again?/ The sky is on fire/ Smoke’s in front of me] captures the disorientation experienced by the John Abraham character, undergoing painful, Kafkaesque withdrawal. A few years earlier, “Yeh Raat” used every sinuous, sinister nocturnal adjective available to match the perverse mood of Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s Aks (2001). These and so many others – “Dhan Te Nan” from Kaminey (2009), “Darling” from 7 Khoon Maaf (2011), “Hamari Atariya Pe” from Dedh Ishqiya (2014) – are item numbers, but they’re also specific, thought-through pieces of songwriting, woven into the fabric of the films they’re in.

That there has been a resurgence of the item number in recent times is undeniable; that many of these songs are puerile and misogynistic is barely worth mentioning. Yet, examining the situation with an unjaundiced eye, I’d hazard that today’s item songs are a shade smarter and funnier than late ‘80s and early ‘90s standards like “Ek Do Teen” and “Tip Tip Barsa Paani”. For every ridiculous item song on TV today (“Sheila Ki Jawani”), there are others that are amusing (“Tu Mere Agal Bagal Hai”), self-parodying (“I Hate You (Like I Love You)”) and inventive (“Womaniya”). There’s really only Gulzar to thank for this. His fingerprints are all over the modern item number. Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani’s “Ghagra” owes everything to “Kajra Re”. And the brass-gold comparison in Ragini MMS 2’s “Baby Doll” is prefigured, if not inspired, by the “Tere bina sona peetal” line from Guru. Gulzar turns 80 this year. It’s about time everyone started treating his item numbers with the same seriousness he accords them.