Sunday, April 26, 2015

Dream double bills

The concept of the double feature originated in the US in the 1930s. Movie houses would screen the main feature—the A-movie—along with a cheaply made, often more schlocky, B-movie (this is how the genre got its name). Though the practice of screening an A and B movie together began to die out in the 1950s, it was adopted by arthouse theatres and film programmers, who saw it as an opportunity to juxtapose films, tease out connections or simply play two of their favourites one after the other.

There are hardly any dedicated repertory houses in this country, so film pairings are usually limited to one’s house and a couple of cinema-crazy friends. The planned opening of FilmBay, the National Film Development Corporation (NFDC) film centre, in Mumbai at the end of the year offers some hope for well-curated double bills in the city. Here are a few suggestions.

Film as a sigh: Brief Encounter and In The Mood For Love

The ultimate unrequited love double bill. In David Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945), a housewife and a doctor fall for each other but never summon up the nerve to carry out an affair. Wong Kar-wai’s In The Mood For Love (2000) also has two lonely souls contemplating adultery after they realize their spouses are cheating on them with each other. Seen side by side, the films offer contrasting studies in reserve. The almost-lovers in Lean’s film are trapped in the stifling environs of late 1930s Britain: not giving in to their impulses seems about right in this repressed, grey world. In Wong’s film, though, the shimmer and noise of Hong Kong in the 1960s mocks the reticence of his leads, as much as Maggie Cheung’s cheongsams seem to physically restrict her from loosening up (Wong’s initial treatment would have had his characters give in to their passions, but he scrapped it for a more melancholy outcome). The films may look poles apart, but the themes are the same: adultery, repression and regret.

Middle-class marriage blues: Dum Laga Ke Haisha and Sara Akash
Along with Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Basu Chatterjee was the greatest director of middle-of-the-road comedies Indian cinema has produced. Yet his first film, Sara Akash (1969), was only intermittently funny and not at all comfortable to watch. Mixing kitchen-sink bleakness with experimental touches (flying opening credits, freeze frames), the film tells the story of an overly serious college graduate in Agra who is forced into an arranged marriage by his parents. Sharat Katariya’s Haridwar-set 2015 comedy Dum Laga Ke Haisha has almost the same plot, with the added wrinkle that the bride is on the heavy side and more qualified than her husband. The mental cruelty exercised by the bride’s in-laws, the suicidal thoughts of the groom, the claustrophobia of joint families: These details ring as true in Chatterjee’s film as they do in Katariya’s, even though they’re separated by 46 years; a depressing bit of commentary on small-town life and marriage in India.

The rise and fall of Urdu: Mughal-e-Azam and Dedh Ishqiya
In an article in the Frontline magazine in 2013, poet, director and lyricist Gulzar wrote, “Our films have kept Urdu alive.” He then went on to lament that the current generation of directors “make Hindi films but they have been to public schools and most of them come from urban India. They do not know much Hindi, and they know no Urdu”. K. Asif’s Mughal-e-Azam (1960) released at a time when audiences could still appreciate a well-judged (and delivered) dialogue in Urdu. Though the film isn’t entirely in Urdu, its greatest lines derive their poetry and grandeur from the language. The extended battle with elephants and thousands of extras on horseback is all very well, but the best fight scene in the movie is the verbal face-off between Akbar and Anarkali. If Asif’s film was one of the high points of Urdu screenwriting in Indian cinema, Abhishek Chaubey’s Dedh Ishqiya (2014) might be its last great moment in the sun. Setting the film amongst the fading, shayari-loving royals of Mahmudabad gave Chaubey and co-writer Vishal Bhardwaj (one of the few directors today whose Urdu Gulzar might approve of) the excuse to unfurl some of the chewiest Hindustani dialogue heard on screen in years. The film released in Mumbai with English subtitles, an indication of Urdu’s foreign language status in Indian cinema today.

Looking back, telling lies: The Usual Suspects and Kahaani
In his book-length interview with François Truffaut, Alfred Hitchcock spoke about the scene that opens his 1950 film Stage Fright. It turns out to be a misleading version of events. “I did one thing in that picture that I never should have done; I put in a flashback that was a lie,” Hitchcock admitted. The idea of the unreliable narrator was taken to rococo extremes by Bryan Singer in his gangster neo-noir The Usual Suspects (1995), which unfolds for the most part as one long flashback and hinges on the identity of one Keyser Söze. Söze turns out—dramatically, if rather conveniently—to be the person who has been narrating the story all along, forcing one to go watch the film again for clues (which is a pleasure). Sujoy Ghosh’s Kahaani (2012) played similarly with the audience, giving Vidya Balan’s avenging heroine a pregnancy and a backstory that’s revealed to be false in the end. The film has a lot to recommend it, but the lying flashback wasn’t the most convincing of tricks.

The new monster movie: A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night and Under The Skin

Two indie films paired for their ability to be simultaneously seductive and unsettling. Scarlett Johansson’s alien drifts through Under The Skin (2013) in much the same way Sheila Vand’s hijab-clad vampire does in A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night (2014). Neither film provides anything like the expected amount of information about its characters, allowing the audience room to contribute back- stories and motives. Both borrow cleverly from genre cinema: Under The Skin from the creature feature and the found footage film; A Girl Walks Home from classic horror and the Western. You can “read” Under The Skin as a reversal of the 'male gaze', or A Girl Walks Home as a parallel universe Iran where women make the arbitrary decisions and men suffer the consequences. Or you can surrender yourself to the weirdness and let the films envelop you like a beautiful, deathly fog.

Fast is funny: His Girl Friday and 99
Howard Hawks made two crucial decisions before making His Girl Friday (1940). The first was that the Hildy Johnson character would work better as a female (he was a man in The Front Page, the play this movie is based on). The second was the idea of committing to a frenetic pace that wouldn’t let up—not for the ends of characters’ sentences, not for the audience to finish laughing. The film, which starred Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, is now regarded as one of the quickest screwball comedies ever made. In 2009, Krishna D.K. and Raj Nidimoru made 99, a film which attempted to smuggle that level of comic pacing into a Bollywood production. Working with a very game cast that included Kunal Khemu, Cyrus Broacha, Boman Irani and Mahesh Manjrekar, they squeezed in more lines per minute, and more jokes per line, than any Hindi film in recent memory.

This piece appeared in Mint Lounge.

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