Thursday, December 8, 2016

Captain Kirk

Two months ago, in an article for The Huffington Post, Kirk Douglas wrote, “My 100th birthday is exactly one month and one day after the next presidential election. I’d like to celebrate it by blowing out the candles on my cake, then whistling ‘Happy Days Are Here Again.’” One hopes that Douglas – a lifelong liberal – would have recovered from the US election result by the time 9 December comes around, and will allow himself a fond look back at what has been an extraordinary career.

He made his screen debut in 1946, opposite Barbara Stanwyck in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, and never seemed to look back. Unlike established stars like Cary Grant and John Wayne, whose screen personae were fixed in the minds of the public, Douglas was tougher to slot: he was a boxer in Champion (1949); a cynical newspaperman in Ace in The Hole (1951); an archetypal Hollywood wheeler-dealer in The Bad and the Beautiful (1952); Vincent Van Gogh in Lust for Life (1956); an upright colonel in Paths of Glory (1957). Outspoken and wilful, he was instrumental in breaking the Hollywood blacklist: as co-producer of Spartacus (1960), he saw to it that Dalton Trumbo (who’d been writing for years under a pseudonym) got a screenwriting credit, which paved the way for other discarded Reds to return to the Hollywood mainstream.

Spartacus sealed his popular image as a rugged action star, but Douglas rarely gravitated towards un-ironic heroics in his films. As he noted in his autobiography, The Ragman’s Son, he portrayed more than his fair share of heavies, but his real talent lay in suggesting that even his protagonists were a few drinks and a bad breakup away from violent implosion or explosion. He could have easily built a career out of his singular glowers and sneers. Instead, he used his scenery-chewing like a smokescreen, the bluster barely able to hide the emotional nakedness.

As the man turns 100, we raise our glasses to Spartacus, to Chuck Tatum, and to these five scenes made indelible by Douglas’ presence:

Meeting Whit 

In Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past, Kirk Douglas was handed one of the most effective introductory scenes in the noir canon. By the time we lay eyes on Whit, 11 minutes in, he’s been established as a man not to be messed with – ‘a big op’, in the words of the Robert Mitchum’s doomy hero, former private detective Jeff. In flashback, we see the two of them meet for the first time. Whit hires Jeff to find his girlfriend, who shot him and made off with 400 thousand dollars.

Most actors – especially those acting in their second film, as Douglas was – would have played Whit as overtly menacing, and the scene would probably still have worked. Whether some instinct told Douglas to resist this, or whether it was Tourneur’s idea to have Whit be mild-voiced, even genial, is anyone’s guess. At any rate, from his first line – “Smoke a cigarette, Joe,” to a hyperventilating henchman – Douglas is a study in offhand cool, perhaps taking a cue from the Zen-like presence of Mitchum across the table. The only time he allows his face to darken is when he says “I won’t touch her” – a canny choice by the actor that tells us all we need to know about Whit.

Hollywood or bust

In the opening minutes of Vincente Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful (1951), movie star Georgia Lorrison (Lana Turner), director Fred Amiel (Barry Sullivan) and screenwriter James Lee Bartlow (Dick Powell) all dodge calls from their once-collaborator, studio head Jonathan Shields (Kirk Douglas). When the three of them are brought together by a producer, we’re told, in a flashback that lasts most of the film, about their respective relationships with – and eventual break from – Shields.

A key scene in the film is the one in which the casually ruthlessness of Shields’ ambition is laid bare. Fred, his collaborator from the start, waits nervously outside a financier’s office while Shields applies for funding for their new movie. Suddenly, Shields bursts through the door, delighted – they have the million dollars they were looking for. He’s so excited, chattering about what they could do with the money, that he doesn’t notice his friend’s face darken when he lets it slip that Fred has been replaced by an established director.

As Fred protests, there’s an immediate change in Douglas’ demeanour; his face, animated a few seconds ago, becomes impassive. His voice, too, drops an octave as he says, “Fred, I’d rather hurt you now than kill you off forever.” In this moment, we feel both the burning ambition and cold calculation of Shields. It’s quite something to watch this scene and be reminded of Michael Douglas, Kirk’s son, deploying a similarly devastating poker-face years later in Wall Street.

Rick falls apart

One of the underappreciated aspects of Douglas’ screen-acting is how often he belied his rugged image and showed weakness – physical, emotional or spiritual – in his onscreen roles. He was drunk and intriguingly unsure in his debut, The Strange Loves of Martha Ivers, and equally drunk and emotionally turbulent four years later, in Michael Curtiz’s Young Man with a Horn. In the 1950 film, Douglas plays Rick Martin, a character based on real-life jazz cornetist Bix Beiderbecke. It’s an uneven film, beautifully photographed and scored but also shrill and puzzling if you can’t figure out that Rick’s wife, played by Lauren Bacall, is supposed to be gay (films at the time couldn’t explicitly say this, which makes Douglas and Bacall’s scenes together very strange).

At the end of the film, Rick is wandering the streets of New York. His wife has walked out on him, his mentor is dead, he’s flubbed a recording session and now he’s drunk and falling apart. In a black jacket and partially unbuttoned white shirt, Douglas walks around in a daze, bumping into passers-by, getting into a fight, buying a beat-up horn. It’s not what most would consider heavy-duty acting, but when I think of Douglas and the film, this is what I remember. It’s a reminder that, so often, what we think of as ‘performance’ is actually the sum total of lighting, camerawork, shot selection, music and a dozen other big and small decisions, almost none of which are in the hands of the actor.

Cowboy blues

As Jerry Goldsmith’s score sweetens into a wistful lilt, the woman hears the clip-clop of hooves, sets aside her cooking and hurriedly washes her hands. She turns around just as he enters. The look they share in that instant has their entire backstory: affection, compromise, regret, loneliness. “Hi,” he says, face creasing into a grin. “Hi,” she replies, with a hint of a smile. “Welcome home.”

The film is David Miller’s Lonely Are the Brave (1962), a modern-day Western in which Douglas plays an outlaw of sorts – not a criminal, just someone unsuited to the restrictions of modern life. The woman is his best friend’s wife; they were in love once, but it never worked out. It’s a simple scene – she makes him breakfast, he tells her that her husband is fine – but Douglas and Gena Rowlands play it with such feeling that you can feel the weight of the years.

The last action hero

Along with George Miller’s The Man from Snowy River, The Fury represents the best of late-period Douglas. In this 1978 film by Brian De Palma, he plays Peter Sandza, an ex-CIA agent who survives an assassination attempt and resurfaces years later in search of his telekinetic son, who’s been kidnapped by a shadowy intelligence organisation. Pursued by his son’s captors, he takes two bumbling beat cops (one of whom is played, hilariously, by Dennis Franz, future NYPD Blue star) hostage and commandeers their vehicle. De Palma, master of the elaborate chase, wasn’t fond of cars, a possible reason why the sequence is played mostly for laughs.

De Palma gave impetus to several fledgling actors – John Travolta, Robert De Niro, Margot Kidder – in his early films, but this was the first time he worked with a huge star. And Douglas is very much the old-school pro in the film, and in this scene. He deadpans through most of it, which only serves to make the panic of his co-passengers more hilarious; his sideways glance when one of them says, belatedly, “Somebody’s after you, is that it?”, is a minor classic). Few actors over 60 would have consented to ending a big action sequence with their pants around their ankles. That Douglas does this without looking ridiculous is testament to his willingness to subvert his own virile image, and to his belief in his own star quality.

This piece appeared online in Mint On Sunday.

Friday, December 2, 2016

A la la landmark

Minutes into La La Land, we were picking our jaws off the floor.

There hasn’t been a purer distillation all year of why we go to the movies, and why cinema isn’t ready to be replaced by home viewing, than the opening sequence of Damien Chazelle’s new film. It opens with a traffic jam on a Los Angeles freeway. As the camera pans along the gridlock, we hear the sounds of radio stations, hip hop and salsa and R&B. This chaotic soundscape is interrupted by a sound of a young woman singing. Another motorist picks up the tune, then another. People get out of their cars and dance. In a matter of minutes, the freeway is hosting a musical number for the ages.

Even edited, this would have been a spectacular sequence, but Chazelle elects to shoot it in a breathless single take. It must have taken weeks of planning and rehearsal to nail all the individual and group movements—some close to acrobatic—and weave them into a flowing, ecstatic whole. Linus Sandgren’s spectacularly mobile camera tilts, pans, dips, races: this must have been what German film-maker F.W. Murnau was dreaming of in the 1920s when he spoke of an “unchained camera”. The song is an up-tempo, Latin-infused number called "Another Day of Sun", and people were pa-pa-pumming it while leaving the theatre.

This sequence might remind some of West Side Story because of the way it marries location shooting and dance, but Chazelle found inspiration in another musical from the same era. In an interview with Variety, La La Land composer Justin Hurwitz spoke about how they “wanted to have a big production number that really pulled you into the world”. He mentions the opening sequence of Jacques Demy’s The Young Girls of Rochefort, which creates a jazzy musical number out of two trucks and a barge, before seguing into a vibrant bit of group choreography.

Demy’s influence on La La Land is visible throughout. He was the swooniest of the French New Wave directors, his films full of bright colours and witty nods to Hollywood musicals. La La Land borrows his palette—especially those pastel shades—and his signature sound, forged in collaboration with the great Michel Legrand. In the same Variety interview, Hurwitz mentions the French composer’s ability to combine a jazz rhythm section with a full-blown orchestra and end up with something danceable. Legrand probably wouldn’t mind being cited as the inspiration for tunes as perfectly constructed as City of Stars or A Lovely Night.

Chazelle first came to wider notice when Whiplash, a film about a young jazz drummer and his martinet of a teacher that he wrote and directed, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2014. It went on to become an unprecedented hit, garnering five Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, and winning three (Editing, Sound Design and Supporting Actor). Few are aware that this wasn’t Chazelle’s first film, or his first stab at reviving the musical genre. His directorial debut came in 2009 with Guy And Madeline on a Park Bench, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival. Like Miles Teller’s drummer in Whiplash and Ryan Gosling’s traditionalist pianist in La La Land, it had a jazz musician protagonist: a trumpet player named Guy.

Guy And Madeline began as Chazelle’s thesis film at Harvard. And it feels like a first film, shot on grainy 16 mm stock and showing the strong influence of another debut film, John Cassavetes’ landmark 1959 independent film Shadows. Yet, parts of it also seem like a dry run for both his subsequent films. The jumpy editing and hand-held camerawork would be used to greater dramatic effect in Whiplash. But it’s also a bona fide musical, with tap dancing and characters breaking into song. Hurwitz’s score, like his one for La La Land, is equal parts jazz and classic Hollywood symphony. There’s even a musical number done in one long, unbroken shot.

La La Land is set in present-day Los Angeles, but you get the sense that the central characters would have preferred to belong to an earlier era. The Gosling character, Sebastian, loves Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell and wants to open a club where people can hear “pure” jazz. The actor Mia, played by Emma Stone, seems to hark back to a time when people who came to Hollywood seeking fame and fortune were discovered performing one-person plays rather than, say, off a YouTube short. The film’s enthusiasm for jazz “as it used to be” is matched by its nostalgia for studio-era Hollywood (the flip side of this could be David Lynch’s 2001 film Mulholland Drive, which has a similar dreamlike air but is pessimistic about Hollywood’s intentions). The coffee shop Mia works at is across the road from the window Bogart and Bergman looked out of in Casablanca. Sebastian can’t believe she hasn’t seen Rebel Without A Cause; they go for a screening, then head to the Griffith Observatory, the setting for one of Rebel’s memorable scenes.

Inevitably, there is tribute paid to the great Hollywood musicals. "A Lovely Night", an old-timey bantering duet shot in one take, has Gosling and Stone doing their best Astaire-Rogers. At one point, Gosling even hangs from a lamp post like Gene Kelly in Singin’ In The Rain. And as the film progresses and Sebastian and Mia begin to measure the size of their dreams against their ambitions, there are also echoes of sombre musicals like A Star Is Born and Meet Me In St Louis.

Not that you have to catch any of these references to enjoy La La Land. There’s nothing cerebral about the boisterous poolside dance that ends "Someone in the Crowd", or the dazzling camera move during the same song in which you’re looking up at the sky one moment, down at the ground the next. Neither is it difficult for a lay viewer to recognize the ache underlying the charm of Gosling and Stone. When they say they don’t make movies like this anymore, they aren’t talking about musicals—they mean movies that give unironic pleasure, that draw spontaneous whoops from jaded viewers, and leave one light-footed and tingling when they’re done.

This piece appeared in Mint Lounge.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Dead Zindagi: Review

In Dear Zindagi, Shah Rukh Khan plays Jehangir Khan (“Call me Jug”), a Goan psychiatrist who helps the mildly disaffected Kaira (Alia Bhatt) with her problems. His analysis is a bit fortune cookie-ish (“Don’t let the past blackmail your present to ruin a beautiful future”), but does that really matter? If there’s one thing we ought to be able to agree upon, it’s that none of us would mind Khan as our analyst. Who wouldn’t want her story listened to with that famous Shah Rukh concentration, her worries alleviated by that self-deprecating chuckle?

One of the heartening things about Gauri Shinde’s film—her second after the well-received English Vinglish in 2012—is its insistence that seeing a shrink isn’t something out of the ordinary. Kaira isn’t seeking help because she’s depressed or is hearing voices—she’s just having trouble sleeping. Over Skype, she tells her worried house help to think of Jug as a dimaag ka doctor, one you can tell your problems to. In a more heated moment, she asks her family why it’s acceptable to say that you’re visiting a doctor but not a mental health specialist. It’s a small blow, but the thousands of people seeking psychiatric help across India will probably be grateful for a film that articulates these very basic truths.

Dear Zindagi takes its time depositing its protagonist on the couch. In the film’s opening stretch, which unfolds in Mumbai, we find out that Kaira’s cheating on her boyfriend, Sid (Angad Bedi), with a colleague, Raghu (Kunal Kapoor), who loves her but whom she keeps at arm’s length. Freeing herself of both relationships, she heads to Goa and gets tangled up in equally fraught tug-of-war with her overly concerned parents. It’s not often you see a sexually liberated, commitment-phobic, parent-averse female character in a Hindi film. It’s almost as if the film’s inviting judgement; when Jug asks Kaira about her boyfriends, she immediately snaps, accusing him of mentally slut-shaming her (Khan’s pained reaction is one of his best moments in the film).

Despite a few nicely worked-out traumas, there isn’t much that disturbs Dear Zindagi’s placid surface. I can understand the urge to present Kaira—a cinematographer at the start of her career—as more than competent, but having her advise a director on how to reshoot his final scene, and his actually welcoming the suggestion is so far-fetched it’s almost science fiction. There’s a token gay character, whose only significant scene seems to exist to show how chill Kaira is. Goa looks as pretty and boring as a picture postcard. Laxman Utekar’s cinematography is glossy and impersonal, Amit Trivedi’s music inoffensive and over-used.

At times, I found myself wishing the film would flail about more. A relevant point of comparison might be Kapoor & Sons—another Dharma production about family secrets, one which didn’t allow its picturesque setting or devastatingly pretty cast get in the way of ugly confrontation. Dear Zindagi has one such explosion, but it’s awkwardly written and exists more as an excuse for Alia to be able to do a big shout-y scene. Shinde tries a couple of new-Bollywood tricks—interrupting songs with short scenes, for instance—but there’s little to quicken the pulse, let alone set it racing. And some of the choices are just plain silly, like the character who says “Lebanese” when he means “lesbian”, or the scene in which Kaira, angry with Raghu, breaks bottles of ragu.

Amid all this, Bhatt thrives. As always, it’s the little choices she makes within scenes—fiddling with the furniture, twitching her lip—that render her such a compelling actor. Shah Rukh Khan bears down with starry charm on the role of Jug, but his mountaineer anecdote just can’t compare with his co-star talking about herself in disguised third person earlier in the scene. Bhatt has a rare ability to make the emotional decisions of her characters look as if they spontaneously occurred to her. In other words, she gives the impression she’s winging it, which makes even the most ordinary scenes she’s in terribly exciting.

This review appeared in Mint. 

Saturday, November 19, 2016

The first picture show

This piece was part of Mint Lounge's cover on 120 years of watching movies together in India.

Marius Sestier (right) with Australian photographer and filmmaker Henry Walter Barnett. Courtesy: Marie-Dominique Petitbois (permission needed for reprint)
Cinema as we know it was born on 28 December 1895, in the basement of the Grand Café in Paris. Ten films by the Lumière brothers, Louis and Auguste, were screened in a room called the Salon Indien, thereby linking, however tangentially, India and the moment of cinema’s birth. Some six months later, the Lumière Cinématographe—a film camera which also served as a projector and printer—was brought to India. On 7 July 1896, a group of people sat together and watched a movie for the first time ever in this country. Perhaps a few in the audience had seen magic lanterns, devices that allowed a single person to view moving images. But seeing pictures projected on a screen—and sharing that experience with others—was almost certainly new to all.
The man responsible for bringing the Lumière films to Bombay was a French chemist-turned-camera-operator named Marius Sestier. He left Marseille with his wife, Marie-Louise Sestier, on 11 June 1896 and reached Bombay on 30 June (the almost wilful misspelling of his name in India begins with the Shipping Intelligence section of the Bombay Gazette, which identifies him as “Cestier”). The Advocate Of India newspaper carried a small story on 2 July announcing the arrival of the Cinématographe—enterprising work by Sestier, considering he knew no English and had apparently taken only a day to acclimatize and find a press contact. The piece compared the Lumière camera favourably to the Kinetoscope, which suggests that Thomas Edison’s magic lantern was well-known enough to require no explanation.
An advertisement for the show appeared in the Bombay Gazette and The Times Of India on the morning of the screening. “The marvel of the century!” the headline read, and beneath it, “The wonder of the world!!” The playbill promised “Living photographic pictures in life-sized reproductions”—perhaps the clearest description that could be offered to readers with little or no conception of cinema.
On 7 July, a small crowd gathered in the grand hall of the swanky Watson’s Hotel in the Kala Ghoda neighbourhood of south Bombay. Exactly how many people attended, and how many of these were Indians, doesn’t seem to have been recorded. Contrary to popular belief, there’s evidence to suggest that Watson’s was not a Europeans-only establishment, so it’s quite possible that wealthy Indians attended the screenings. What we do know for sure is this: There were four shows in the evening, at 6, 7, 9 and 10; admission was a flat Re 1; the films screened were Entry Of Cinematographe, Arrival Of A Train, The Sea Bath, A Demolition, Leaving The Factory and Ladies And Soldiers On Wheels. We can also surmise, from the descriptions of screenings Sestier organized in Australia, that the lights came on after every film, most of which were a minute long. The audience would then wait for the new film to be wound through, after which the room would be plunged into darkness again.

Courtesy: Sylvia Murphy (permission required to reprint)

It’s difficult to imagine how close to magic those first flickerings must have seemed to those who witnessed them. Did Arrival Of A Train make the spectators at Watson’s jump out of their seats, as it did those who first saw it in Paris? (Historians Mihir Bose and B.D. Garga say it did.) A report on the screening, published in the Bombay Gazette on 9 July, is vague about audience make-up and reaction. It misidentifies the Lumières as the exhibitors, and bemoans the smallness of the room as the reason for the on-screen figures not being “life-size”, contrary to what the advertisements promised. On the whole, though, the reporter was impressed. “No one who takes an interest in the march of science should allow to pass by the opportunity that now presents itself to see the cinematographe,” the piece concluded.
In a country where most movie-watchers fancy themselves to be decent enough critics, it’s amusing to note that the first report on a screening also doubles up as the first film review. The Bombay Gazette reporter praises Arrival Of A Train, A Demolition and The Sea Bath, but singles out Leaving The Factory as the most realistic. That this elevation appears to have been due to the emotional qualities of the scene (“brings a whole crowd of moving humanity on the canvas”) is a fitting start to the long Indian tradition of approaching cinema heart first and head later.
Screenings followed on 9 July and, with a new set of six films, on 10 and 11 July. Sestier also leased the Novelty theatre near Grant Road, a move welcomed by the Bombay Gazette, which estimated that the “science effect will be greatly enhanced” in the larger venue. As it happened, science didn’t take effect that day; there was a power failure and the screening on 14 July was cancelled, disappointing the “fairly large audience” that had turned up in the rain. The Novelty screening was rescheduled for 21 July: two shows, of 12 films each, at 6.30pm and 9.30pm. They went off without a hitch, and further shows were scheduled for 23 and 24 July.
From 27 July to 15 August, there were screenings every evening (except on Thursdays, for some reason) at Novelty. The shows appear to have been well-attended, though there’s no information on how many of the theatre’s 1,400 seats were filled. We know that variable pricing was introduced: the orchestra stall and dress circle, Rs 2; second seats Re 1; back seats, 50 paise. Sally Jackson, curator of film at the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia, says the screenings were accompanied by spoken commentary. “They were narrated, presumably in English,” she says over the phone from Canberra. “This was common for all the Lumière shows.” The last few shows even had musical accompaniment, played on piano by one F. Seymour Dove (“…appropriate to the views exhibited,” the Bombay Gazette noted approvingly).
As with the shows at Watson’s, it’s difficult to say how many of the viewers at Novelty were Indian. However, articles describing the Cinématographe in Gujarati (in Kaiser-i-Hind) and Marathi are an indication that non-European, non-English-speaking audiences were encouraged to attend. One notable audience member at the Lumière screenings was a photographer named Harishchandra Sakharam Bhatavdekar, better known as Save Dada. He was so inspired that he ordered a camera from England and shot The Wrestlers (1899), one of the very first films by an Indian, and inaugurated the newsreel tradition in the country with The Arrival Of Sir MM Bhownaggree and Atash Behram (both 1901).
Watson's Hotel today; possibly the same room in which the screenings took place

On 26 August, the Sestiers (recorded as “Sistier” by the unrepentant Shipping Intelligence) left for Colombo and, from there, for Sydney. Film historian Tony Martin-Jones’ website, which provides a thorough chronology of Sestier’s activities, notes that the cameraman organized Cinématographe shows for his fellow passengers on the FMS Polynésien. Sestier would go on to screen the Lumière films in Australia, and make Patineur Grotesque, thought to be the country’s oldest surviving film.
Back in India, the genie, having escaped the bottle, set about fulfilling an ever-increasing number of wishes. Calcutta and Madras had their first moving-picture shows in 1897. That year, Clifton & Co. had daily screenings at their Meadows Street photography studio in Bombay (by happy coincidence, Sylvia Murphy, a descendant of its founder, provided information for this story). A lot of early film-watching in India was done in tents, but the move towards permanent structures was inevitable. In 1907, J.F. Madan built the Elphinstone Picture Palace in Calcutta, probably the first dedicated movie theatre in the country. People could now get together for the express purpose of watching cinema. That an overwhelming number of us still get together, over a hundred years later, to gaze at life-sized reproductions on a screen, is more than a little magical.
Rafique Baghdadi, Sally Jackson, Tony Martin-Jones, Sylvia Murphy and Marie-Dominique Petitbois were extremely generous with information and counsel.

Rock On 2: Review

When we last met Aditya, Joe, Kedar and Rob, members of the rock band Magik, they were seemingly headed for fame and fortune, having overcome assorted monetary, professional and mid-life crises. Since then, Rob, on his deathbed at the end of Rock On!!, has passed, though Luke Kenny makes an appearance in a flashback, his tresses greying but still worthy of some sort of hair-shimmer award. Joe (Arjun Rampal) has given up music and become a reality show judge and the owner of a swanky club. Aditya (Farhan Akhtar), haunted by the suicide of a fan, has decamped to Meghalaya. And Kedar (Purab Kohli) still goes by KD, short for ‘Killer Drummer’, which might be all you need to know about his emotional growth.

Had Rock On 2 rehashed Abhishek Kapoor’s 2008 film—simply given us another variation on good-looking, well-to-do people bemoaning life passing them by—it would have been trying. But director Shujaat Saudagar and writers Abhishek Kapoor and Pubali Chaudhuri have a new hook: altruism. The film opens in the mountains of Meghalaya, where Aditya has helped the local farmers form a cooperative and start a school. It’s good to see Hindi films try out new settings, and the valleys and lakes look idyllic, but the idea that it takes a big-city musician running from his demons to organise workers (that too, in the northeast) comes across as fairly patronising.

Aditya’s social work is put on hold when singer Jiah (Shraddha Kapoor) enters the picture. She’s the daughter of a disapproving classical musician (Kumud Mishra), and—as KD’s voice-over makes blindingly clear—has her own demons, just like Aditya. The film reveals the source of her trauma very slowly, though an educated guess should get you there about an hour in advance. There’s some potential in the film’s conception of Jiah—a shy woman who makes field recordings and writes tunes she doesn’t want people to hear—but there’s little that unfamiliar about the disapproving-father-dutiful-daughter route her story takes.

Like the earlier film, the best thing one can say about Rock On 2 is that it’s a professional job. The storytelling is straightforward, and just in case anyone’s having the slightest difficulty understanding what’s going on, there’s KD’s voice-over. The writing is stolid, full of unmusical truths like “Move on kehna aasaan hai, karna mushkil hai”. Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy contribute bright, catchy pop-rock. Everything is tied with a neat bow in the end—nothing like a good gig to set right deep-seated emotional issues and, it would seem, a corner of Meghalaya.

With Akhtar and Rampal doing strong-men-in-agony routines, it’s left to Kohli to inject some fun, which he gamely does, even though it makes him look silly at times. Shashank Arora is intriguing as an ambitious shudhh Hindi-speaking semi-classical musician who joins Magik, but it’s an underwritten part. Kapoor does her own singing—fairly well, it must be said—as does the hoarse-voiced Akhtar. What is perhaps most surprising is that a film about musicians has nothing insightful to tell us about how music is made. In the fantasy world of the film, abandoned takes and flubbed notes don’t exist. It sounds right but rings false.

This review appeared in Mint.

Doctor Strange: Review

Remember the sequence in Inception in which Leonardo DiCaprio and Ellen Page cause Paris to fold over on itself? Imagine a film with set-piece upon set-piece like this, but with precious little to bind them together, and you get Doctor Strange, adapted from a lesser-known Marvel series dating back to 1963 and featuring a group of supremely talented actors saying incredibly silly things.

Even as the faithful waited for the mid-credits sequence and the post-credits sequence, I left the hall with the worrying realisation that I’d just sat through a movie that I couldn’t, for the life of me, explain in any detail. If anyone asked, I’d be able to tell them that Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), a gifted, self-centred surgeon, suffers severe damage to his hands after a car accident, travels to Kathmandu to seek out a shadowy mystic known as the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), and gets involved in an intergalactic (or is it inter-dimensional?) war with her former student, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen). But what Kaecilius’ game-plan in (something to do with eternal life), why characters keep saying “dark dimension” and “astral plane” like the words actually mean something, what the deal with the stained-glass monster at the end is, I have no clue.

Doctor Strange is Batman Begins with magic brass knuckles and mysticism: an origin story about a rich, arrogant man who learns the ancient arts from a shamanistic figure and finds a suitable cape. The philosophical mumbo-jumbo is initially undercut by Strange, who just wants to get his hands fixed and leave. This, of course, is undone by a clunky but necessary bit of exposition (”The Avengers protect the world from physical dangers. We safeguard it against more mystical threats.”).

The film has beautifully inventive set-pieces: the sequences in which cityscapes rapidly sway, spin, fold and rearrange themselves are true feats of visual imagination. Yet, very little of anything anyone says in the film makes any sense, and I found myself waiting impatiently for the room to become an Escher drawing or Strange to freeze time with a wave of his hand. An accomplished cast— Swinton, Mikkelsen, Chiwetel Ejiofor (trying out a vaguely Asian accent)—barely registers. Cumberbatch plays yet another sardonic man of science and gives no indication of tiring of the type.

This review appeared in Mint.

Ae Dil Hai Mushkil: Review

How do you say “white elephant art” in Urdu? I’m sure the makers of Ae Dil Hai Mushkil have affection for the language and its place in Indian cinema, but its presence here felt more like a pose than natural speech. A character actually says, “Wow, Urdu is so exotic,” and though it’s meant as a joke, this feels like the film’s attitude as well. Every time Alizeh (Anushka Sharma) says waalid or shauhar, one pictures the writers (story and screenplay by Karan Johar; dialogue by Johar and Niranjan Iyengar) patting themselves on the back for being so refined. The fact is that Urdu dialogue today is mostly limited to two kinds of Hindi films: ones set in the distant past and ones set in Pakistan. Whether the scenes set in “Lucknow, India” (as the onscreen text assures us) were in “Lahore, Pakistan” in an earlier draft, we may never know.

If Urdu is fetishized in Karan Johar’s film, Bollywood is as well. Alizeh and Ayan (Ranbir Kapoor) bond over Hindi films after their hook-up in London ends with her making fun of his kissing. He sings "Ruk Ja O Dil Deewane". She dreams of a being in a teary airport scene one day. They head off to the mountains; he sings “ae hey”, she wears a chiffon sari in the snow. He plays "Pyar Ka Tohfa Tera" first thing in the morning—an astonishing act of self-flagellation. You can see why Johar spends so much time referencing popular movies and songs: by demolishing any notion of hierarchies of taste, he makes it easier for audiences to relate to characters who are “jet plane wealthy”.

Holidaying in Paris with Ayan, Alizeh bumps into her former lover, a DJ named Ali (Fawad Khan). She’d warned Ayan earlier that Ali was her tabahi (destruction) and she proves this by dropping her friend cold and walking off with her flame. A couple of days later, she informs Ayan that she’s marrying Ali. She asks him to attend the wedding, a request bordering on cruel, given that Ayan has made it clear that he still loves her. But Ayan is such a self-deluding, self-defeating character that he agrees immediately and heads to Lucknow to try and win her back at her own wedding. You can imagine how that works out.

After the intermission, the film starts to resemble Johar’s 2006 film Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna, with Alizeh and Ali married and Ayan starting a relationship with a poet named Saba (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan). The difference is that the Shah Rukh Khan and Rani Mukherji characters in Kabhi Alvida wanted to spend their life together, whereas Alizeh is adamant that Ayan is only a friend. Whether you find the latter half of the film frustrating or moving might depend on your tolerance for generalizations such as “The best kind of love is one-sided” and your willingness to see Ranbir Kapoor play yet another sad-sack romantic with the emotional intelligence of a 15-year-old.

Instead of confronting its central question—what do you do if the person you love doesn’t love you back?—the film sidesteps it with a shameless deus ex machina. There’s a certain cynicism involved in introducing a twist like this: the assumption has to be that the audience won’t see through the very obvious manipulation, or won’t care. Similarly blatant is the cameo by Shah Rukh Khan, a two-minute apologia for ex-lovers who won’t give up.

Ae Dil Hai Mushkil has a run-time of 158 minutes, but there’s surprisingly little filler, and a better ratio of good to bad jokes than one might expect from a Johar film. Lisa Haydon has an entertaining cameo early in the film as Ayan’s girlfriend, and there were audible sighs when Fawad Khan turned up onscreen. Rai, though, struggles to give her character definition; it’s ironic to hear Saba say that beauty fades while personality persists beyond the grave, given that the actor has always had too much of the former and very little of the latter. Her lovey-dovey scenes with Kapoor are a train wreck, though for sheer awkwardness it’s difficult to beat Johar determinedly celebrating his own career through the course of the film. Within the first 10 minutes, three of his films are referenced. The theme from Kal Ho Na Ho plays at one point, "It’s the Time to Disco" at another. Alizeh says, “I am not a terrorist.” She and Ayan do the nose-tweaking thing from Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. This is beyond just self-referential—it’s self-reverential. Maybe that’s the answer to the film’s dilemma: when the object of your affection doesn’t reciprocate, you simply learn to love yourself.

This review appeared in Mint.

Train to Busan: Review

It might be a strange thing to say about a zombie movie, but there’s a lean beauty to Train to Busan. It’s difficult to imagine this film done more efficiently, or more effectively. Take the opening three minutes. It’s a common monster movie trope—the anomaly in nature that hints at impending disaster—but what distinguishes this sequence is its economy. A truck transporting livestock is halted and sprayed by men in protective suits; they say there’s been a leak at a nearby plant. On the highway, distracted by his phone, he hits a deer, killing it. As he drives away, the animal suddenly seizes and stands up. The camera zooms in on its eyes, which are an unearthly white.

In the 10 minutes it takes to get from deer-zombie to the titular train, we’re introduced to Seok-woo (Gong Yoo) and his young daughter, Su-an (Kim Su-an). He’s a fund manager, divorced, a conscientious but distracted father. They’re headed to Busan to drop Su-an off at her mother’s. Their fellow passengers include a hilariously spiky married couple, Sang-hwa (Ma Dong-seok) and Seong-kyeong (Jung Yu-mi), members of a baseball team, a loathsome CEO, two old sisters and a disturbed-looking man who mutters “They’re all dead” to himself over and over again. There’s also a young woman who climbs aboard, limping, with a bite wound on her leg.

The moment the woman’s eyes turn white and she bites the attendant, the film shifts gears. Within minutes, our protagonists are being pursued across the train by the deadly (if not very intelligent) undead. Seok-woo and Sang-hwa become de facto leaders; when running is no longer an option, they start taking the fight to the zombies, whose number now includes most of the train’s passengers. With each successive encounter, we learn a little more about what these walking dead can do (shuffle quickly, spread the virus by biting) and can’t (run, open doors).

Director Yeon Sang-ho, who’s worked mostly in animation before this, displays a by-now recognizably Korean talent for sustained, dynamic filmmaking and controlled mayhem. Unlike Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer—another kinetic action film set aboard a train—there’s little social comment, apart from the one scene that seems to comment on the plight of immigrants. If there’s further subtext, it’s overshadowed by the repeated visual of zombie heads being bashed in with baseball bats. Train to Busan doesn’t make many emotional demands of the viewer, nor does it further the zombie genre in any significant way. But you don’t really need to break new ground if you can tread familiar paths so confidently.

This review appeared in Mint.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Auto to the dark side

After attending film school in New York and Los Angeles, Rohit Mittal worked with Roger Corman. If you know your film history, this is a pretty good indication that Mittal knows his. Corman isn’t an obvious choice: he is, and always has been, a B-movie maven, a producer whose recent credits include Dance with a Vampyre and Sharktopus vs. Whalewolf. To want to work with him, you’d have to know that Francis Ford Coppola, Jack Nicholson, Bruce Dern, Martin Scorsese and Jonathan Demme all got their start with Corman.

Later this month, Mittal’s first feature, Autohead, will have its India premiere at the Mumbai Film Festival. The film itself is too self-aware to be Corman-like, but the story of its making is. Mittal started nursing the idea in early 2014, when he was still in Los Angeles. “I had three-four things in mind,” he said. “I wanted to put in a point of view which is kind of destructive. I wanted to do a character study. I like films that are more about the criminal than the crime. I also badly wanted to do something that questions social realist filmmakers, because I hated those kinds of films.”

Instead of pitching the film to investors – which, given how it turned out, might not have been a fruitful exercise anyway – Mittal borrowed money from friends and family. The plan was to collect enough to be able to shoot the film and subsequently find a producer. Apart from Mittal, Deepak Sampat (who plays the central character) and editor Avnendra Upadhyay were new to feature films, while cinematographer Sunny Banerjee had just one unreleased film to his credit. After three months of pre-production – during which, among other things, Sampat learnt to drive an autorickshaw—Mittal shot the film in 15 days in March 2015. After seeing an edit, Amit Verma came on board as producer and the film was completed by July.

Autohead is a strange hybrid: a mockumentary, a grimy street indie, a state of the nation address, a pitch-black comedy and a savage attack on a particular kind of filmmaking. “It disturbs me that in India there are either Bollywood films or films about social issues,” Mittal said. No one in their right mind would mistake Autohead for an issue film, even if it does comment on regional and class divides, sexual repression and the public appetite for unfeeling media voyeurism. We’re shown, via the cameras of a documentary crew, the life of Narayan Srivastav, an auto driver in Mumbai. “No one around me understood why I was special,” he tells a passenger, “but these people did.”

The perverse joy of Autohead is that the film crew following Narayan really doesn’t understand why he’s “special”. It turns out Narayan is unique in the same way Travis Bickle is – uniquely deluded, with a desire to clean up the filth surrounding him but with nothing like the mental stability required to do it right. The parallels with Taxi Driver are easy to spot – a vehicle-for-hire as a metaphor for loneliness, the central character’s fondness for porn, his attachment to an escort – and quite deliberate, though Mittal says that the influence of French serial killer mockumentary Man Bites Dog (a reference that’s popped up in most of the writing about Autohead) has been overestimated.
Autohead was part of the NFDC Film Bazaar last year. Since then, it’s travelled to the Hong Kong International Film Festival and two top genre festivals: BiFan in South Korea and the Sitges International Fantastic Film Festival in Spain.

Those who watch it at the Mumbai Film Festival might be led to wonder whether the lead character was inspired by Auto Shankar, the auto-driving serial killer and basis for Anurag Kashyap’s TV movie Auto Narayan. Mittal told me that this was a coincidence, though he mentioned that he’d enjoyed watching another film in the same series as Kashyap’s: Sriram Raghavan’s unreleased Raman Raghav. Though Mittal saw Raghavan’s film after Autohead was completed, there are some striking similarities – the Mumbai street setting, the all-pervasive amorality, the remorseless of the lead performances (Sampat’s Narayan lands somewhere between Raghubir Yadav’s catatonic portrayal of Raghav and Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s animated take in Kashyap’s 2016 remake).

Six years ago, Mittal was embarking, unhappily, on a career in law. Last week, Autohead played at Stiges alongside talked-about films like Amat Escalante’s The Untamed and Babak Anvari’s Under the Shadow. As career gambles go, this one seems to have worked out quite well.

This piece appeared in Mint Lounge.

Jago Hua Savera/ Ae Dil Ae Mushkil

Today, in a press release, the Mumbai Film Festival announced that it would not be screening the 1958 Indo-Pakistan-Bangladeshi film Jago Hua Savera, which they’d earlier included in their lineup. The statement read: “Given the current situation, the Jio MAMI 18th Mumbai Film Festival with Star has decided not to programme Jago Hua Savera as part of the Restored Classics Section.” When we reached out to them, the festival declined to comment further on the cancellation.

Jago Hua Savera was a rare collaboration between artists from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh (then East Pakistan). The director, AJ Kardar, and the screenwriter, the great poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz, were from Pakistan. It was shot near Dhaka, and featured Bangladeshi actor Khan Ataur Rahman. It was based on a story by an Indian writer (Manik Bandopadhyay), starred an Indian actor (Tripti Mitra) and had music by the famous Indian composer Timir Baran. Till 2007—when prints were tracked down in France, London and Karachi—the film has a reputation as a lost neorealist classic of south Asian cinema.

“I want to show the film in Pakistan, India and Bangladesh,” Anjum Taseer, son of the film’s producer, Nauman Taseer, told the BBC in June. “The film is a combination of the efforts of the people of the three countries.”

Tragically, cinephiles will be denied the opportunity to see the restored version at the Mumbai Film Festival, starting this week. The reason for this is a complaint by Prithvi Maske, head of an NGO called Sangharsh Foundation. Maske, who filed a complaint with the Amboli police station in Mumbai on Saturday, told IANS: “Our intentions are very clear. We will protest against the festival if they showcase this film.” Earlier this month, Maske had also filed a complaint against actor Om Puri, for his comments on a news channel about the Indian armed forces.

This may not be the only filmic casualty of the atmosphere of amped-up patriotism that prevails. On Friday, the Cinema Owners and Exhibitors Association of India (COEAI) announced that it has asked its members not to screen films with Pakistani artists in their theatres. The COEAI is active in the states of Gujarat, Goa, Maharashtra and part of Karnataka. Whether this decision is complied with remains to be seen, but it does cast a shadow over the fortunes of Karan Johar’s Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, which has Pakistani actor Fawad Khan in a supporting role, and is scheduled to release on 28 October.

Over the phone, Nitin Datar, president of the COEAI, clarified that this was not a ban. When asked what exactly it was, he called it a “suspension”. “This applies to films with Pakistani actors, directors, technicians, singers,” he said. How long it would last, he said, depended on whether relations with Pakistan normalised.

Datar said that the suspension had been in the works for a while. He cited the Pathankot and Uri attacks on Indian forces, the bar on Pakistani artists by the Indian Motion Pictures Producers Association (IMPAA), the banning of Indian films in Pakistan and, above all, the “public mood” as factors that influenced the COEAI’s decision. He also mentioned that no Pakistani artist had spoken out against the attacks on the Indian forces. “Our members felt that we should respect the wishes of our countrymen,” he said.

Datar said that safety concerns had also guided the decision. “What if there is a stampede? What if someone starts a fire?” he asked. He did not, however, say that there had been a specific threat made to theatre owners. The only threat of violence so far has come from the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS). Amey Khopkar, a member of the party’s film wing, had warned directors Karan Johar and Mahesh Bhatt that they’d be beaten if they worked with Pakistani artists.

Asked what might happen if some exhibitors in the four states decided not to comply with the suspension, Datar said he didn’t foresee such a situation. “My country, right or wrong,” he said, before hanging up.

This piece appeared in Mint.

Inferno: Review

The best joke in Inferno probably isn’t meant as one. In the opening moments of Ron Howard’s film, a bearded individual, whom we’d earlier seen giving some kind of lecture on the dangers of overpopulation, is running from two men. They catch up with him at the top of a bell-tower, but instead of negotiating he jumps to his death. Movie logic dictates that his pursuers will be revealed to be the mafia or the CIA or something. But when the same men break into an apartment a few minutes later, brandishing guns, they do so with a shout of “World Health Organization!”

Believe it or not, there’s a reason for the WHO to come busting in through the door. The jumper, it turns out, was an American billionaire, Bertrand Zobrist (Ben Foster), who believed that overpopulation had brought the human race to the brink of extinction, and may or may not have developed a deadly virus that could eliminate—or cull, as he charmingly puts it—half of mankind. Because the location of the pathogen is contained in a series of cryptic clues involving Botticelli’s rendering of Dante’s 14th century poem Inferno, Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) is called into service—though who it is that does the calling is revealed only gradually.

This is the third film in the Langdon series, all of which have featured the Howard-Hanks team and used as source material Dan Brown’s workmanlike best-sellers. Though the central mysteries are often found buried in high art, the books (and the films) have no pretensions to the same. They’re as quick and satisfying as junk food, unleavened by wit, perfect for long plane journeys or Sunday afternoons when you have to watch a film, any film. Inferno follows the now-familiar template: Langdon is brought to Europe (Florence, Istanbul), paired with a younger female sidekick (Felicity Jones’ Dr Sienna Brooks), and forced to outsmart a shadowy organization, an assassin and frazzled authorities.

The result is frenetic but devoid of inspiration, dependent on the truly bizarre twists of Brown’s novel and made slow by a truckload of exposition. Hanks has never seemed quite right for the role, and he makes an awkward team with Jones, who’s oddly blank for most of the film. But Irrfan Khan, playing Harry “The Provost” Sims (Brown has a talent for silly-sounding names), the head of a shady security firm, has a whale of a time with the wonderfully hammy dialogue handed to him. He seems to be enjoying himself tremendously. It’s nice that someone is.

This review appeared in Mint.

Mirzya: Review

In the shrinking swamp that’s the Cinema Of Big Gestures, there’s only one hippopotamus, and that’s Sanjay Leela Bhansali. But if the swamp could also accommodate a crocodile, said reptile would definitely be Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra. Both directors have a fondness for narratives that teeter on the edge of mania, for scenes that vibrate with the tension of staying sane. But Bhansali tied it all together with Bajirao Mastani last year, whereas Mehra’s Mirzya is as picturesque and empty as the desert it’s shot in.

Mehra has never been one to ease into films. Mirzya opens in a blacksmith’s colony, with Om Puri doing a vague sutradhar thing. As the camera zooms in on a painting of legendary doomed lovers Mirza and Sahiban, we’re transported to the unspecified past, with fiery exploding clay pigeons being shot at by men on horseback in the desert. An observer—a princess, from the looks of it—identifies one particularly talented masked archer by yelling “Mirzyaaa” in a thin voice. He doesn’t reply, but we’re guessing she’s Sahibaan.

It’s a pretty spectacular scene, and only Mehra would think to immediately try and top it. We jump forward to the present day. Teenagers Munish and Suchitra are best friends, go to school together, live close by and are pretty much inseparable. One day, Munish forgets his homework and presents Suchitra’s notebook instead, which results in his friend being caned. In a typically Mehra-esque overreaction, Munish returns the next day, armed with Suchitra’s father’s pistol, and shoots the teacher. He’s sent to a correctional facility but soon manages to escape.

A decade or so passes. Munish (Harshvardhan Kapoor), who now goes by the name Adil, lives in the blacksmith’s colony from the film’s opening. Suchitra (Saiyami Kher) is engaged to the scion of a royal family, a clean-cut young man called Karan (Anuj Choudhry). In a film that has more horses than cars, it is perhaps inevitable that the stable-boy will turn out to be Munish, that he’ll teach Suchitra to ride, and that she’ll discover his true identity and tear his shirt off (maybe that very last bit wasn’t inevitable). As her wedding day draws near, it’s time for them to start making the kind of decisions doomed lovers are apt to.

Every once in a while, Mehra interrupts the Munish-Suchitra story to update us on Mirza and Sahiban (also played by Kapoor and Kher), who have eloped and are being pursued across the desert by her family. I guess we’re supposed to be moved by the similarities between the stories, but the parallels are so obvious—both Sahibaan and Suchitra are being wed to men they don’t love; both are handed vials of poison, etc.—that there’s little resonance. The screenplay is by Gulzar—his first since 1999’s Hu Tu Tu—but there are few poetic flourishes, and all the quoting from Romeo and Juliet is depressingly direct.

None of this would have been watchable if Mirzya wasn’t a fine-looking, great-sounding film. Cinematographer Pawel Dyllus comes up with one long, unbroken, intricate shot after another. Often, it’s his camera movements which seem to supply the necessary energy or emotion to the scene. Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy supply their best soundtrack in ages. And I’ve seen worse CGI panthers. Not that all this flash doesn’t tip over at times and end up like an outtake from "Hymn for the Weekend". The worst offender is the musical number "Chakora"—half-experimental dance troupe, half-Vogue photoshoot in a Rajasthani village.

Kapoor, making his screen debut, struggles to fill the outsized character he’s been handed; the part seems to call for someone with the immodesty of a Ranveer Singh. The actor might also be better suited to big city parts: the scene in which he’s demonstrating Munish’s shaky grasp on English falls flat because his pronunciation of the words his character does know is perfect. Kher, a former model who acted in the 2015 Telugu film Rey, presents an immaculate surface, but little evidence of depth. Unlike the doomed lovers of Ram-Leela or Ishaqzaade, these two don’t have much fire in them. Even when they’re on the run, Suchitra and Munish give the impression that they’d rather settle back with a joint and read sonnets to each other rather than rail against the elements.

This review appeared in Mint.

Speaking in tongues

Watching Sairat in Mumbai, hearing the audience around me react to what was being said on screen milliseconds before I reached the end of the subtitle, was a window into the viewing experiences of those who love Hindi films but don’t understand the language. A welcome by-product of the film’s successful run was seeing Hindi-speaking audiences turn out in numbers for a Marathi film. Films in Indian languages other than Hindi are usually dubbed, not subtitled. And the ones that are subtitled definitely don’t gross Rs100 crore.

While it’s possible to overestimate the pan-Indian appeal of Sairat (the subtitling was in English, which automatically excludes a large section of the population), its success might suggest an increased willingness on the part of Bollywood-fed audiences to watch films in other languages—or, failing that, small doses of other languages making their way into Hindi films.

Bollywood has been nibbling around the edges of this for a while. Urdu, ubiquitous in Hindi film songs, finds contextual use in dialogue, mostly when the film is about nobility (Dedh Ishqiya, Bajirao Mastani) or Pakistan (Phantom, Happy Bhag Jayegi). But the second language of Bollywood is now almost certainly Punjabi. There’s hardly a film that releases that doesn’t have a musical number in Punjabi, but even more remarkable is the assumption producers and writers seem to have made regarding the lay viewer’s facility with the language. This year, Udta Punjab, Sarbjit and Jugni—each with a major portion of its dialogue in Punjabi—released without subtitles, to say nothing of half a dozen other films with Punjabi-speaking characters.

Even a smattering of a local language or dialect makes a huge difference; the Malayalam phrases we hear in Waiting, or the ones in Kashika in Masaan, tell us about the world the characters inhabit in the same way that carefully calibrated production design or sound might. Yet, more often than not, opportunities to expand the linguistic palette go abegging. 2 States and Madras Cafe had minimal Tamil. I don’t recall the Kom dialect being spoken in Mary Kom. Te3n is a thriller set in Kolkata, yet it barely has more than a couple of lines in Bengali.

Considerable progress has been made in the last 20 years as far as incorporating dialects which have something in common with Hindi into films is concerned. Many of the landmark Hindi films during this period—Bandit Queen, Satya, Lagaan, Omkara, Gangs Of Wasseypur—have had specific (if varied) linguistic approaches, incorporating local dialects, rhythms and colloquialisms. Hopefully, in years to come, Hindi cinema will take the next logical step and bring in other languages.

This piece appeared in Mint Lounge.

Queen of Katwe: Review

Queen of Katwe, directed by an Indian and set in a slum in Uganda, might sound like an unlikely Disney project. Yet, as it unfolds, Disney-like qualities do come to the fore. It has a determined heroine at its centre, a studio staple all the way from Snow White to Frozen. This is probably the closest a Mira Nair film has come to family viewing, this despite the sporadic violence and mentions of prostitution and the ever-present poverty of Katwe, a slum in Uganda’s capital, Kampala. Above all, there’s the very Disney reassurance that nothing too terrible is going to happen. Like last year’s beautiful Kaaka Muttai, which showed us the squalor of its young protagonists’ lives but wrapped everything in warm vibes, Queen of Katwe is rarely downbeat or devoid of hope.

Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga) lives with her mother, Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o), her two brothers and elder sister in a run-down shanty in Katwe. She and her brother sell corn in the market but the money from that isn’t enough to guarantee a square meal a day. So, when she discovers that her brother has joined a sports outreach programme which guarantees a free cup of porridge a day, the nine-year-old tags along. There, she’s noticed by Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), a former football player who teaches the local children chess. Mutesi can’t read, has no prior training, but she shows an unusual aptitude for the game.

Anyone who’s seen a couple of Nair’s films knows the speed at which she can zip through a narrative. Here, she alternates between Mutesi’s almost miraculously improving game and her hardscrabble home life, all the while providing vignettes of life in colourful, chaotic Kampala. Mutesi’s first big win is in a school tournament, a sequence that’s written broadly (mean posh schoolkids taunting poorer rivals is a time-worn sports film trope) but staged with great economy and humour. Chess enthusiasts may feel disappointed that more time isn’t spent on the board, but Nair is interested in other things, like the confidence with which the players pick up their pencils and tap the clocks, or the mental advantage that a lollipop might give a well-off boy over one from a slum.

As with his screenplay for Nair’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist, William Wheeler’s writing is a little too on-the-nose. Yet, Queen of Katwe is elevated by the uniqueness of Mutesi’s story and the specificity of Nair’s eye. The director has lived in Kampala, on and off, for 27 years now, and it shows in the astonishing level of detail she summons: the finger snaps and paraffin lamps; a solitary goat on top of a piled-up truck carrier; Mutesi removing her shoes before the most important match of her life. It’s as dynamic and unsentimental a portrait of slum life as her first feature film, Salaam Bombay!, made over 25 years ago. The only thing that’s changed is the slight gloss this film has, and the absence of real danger.

The graceful Nalwanga, a dancer by training, captures Mutesi’s shy speaking style well, but the key performances are by the film’s stars. Oyelowo gets to turn on the charm, for the real Robert Katende has the charisma of a movie star himself (see A Fork, A Spoon and a Knight, a short film on his life, co-directed by Nair). Nyong’o is fierce and desperate and resourceful—sometimes all at once, like in the scene where she approaches a shady cloth merchant with an offer. During the end credits, the actors are joined onscreen, one by one, by the person they’ve portrayed. It’s a wonderful idea, and an indication of how, for all its larger implications, this was probably a very personal film for everyone involved.

This review appeared in Mint.

MS Dhoni: The Untold Story: Review

The downside of calling your film M.S. Dhoni: The Untold Story is that it’s easy for someone to point out after it’s done that a lot of the story is still untold. Let me be that person. This is a film for acolytes—people who want to see some kind of Superdhoni on their screens instead of the inscrutable iceberg who also happened to be one of the most significant cricketers of his generation.

Right from the start, this is a fairy tale disguised as an underdog story.This is not to say that the film isn’t faithful to the broader details of Dhoni’s life and career. It’s the treatment: the way things fall into place the way they rarely do in real life. When, as a young football enthusiast, he’s first handed wicket-keeping gloves, he drops the first few catches, then latches on to everything after that. Batting in the nets for the first time, he hits the first ball back over the bowler’s head. Throughout the film, there are only a few instances of Dhoni being dismissed; getting out, apparently, is for mortals.

Working with co-writer Dilip Jha, writer-director Neeraj Pandey uses the intermission to divide the Dhoni saga (from childhood till the 2011 World Cup) into two halves that could have been titled “persistence” and “payoff”. We’re shown how Dhoni’s hitting makes him a legend in his school, then in his hometown of Ranchi; how he misses his chance to play for the U-19 team; how he takes a job as a ticket collector in the hope of representing Railways in the Ranji Trophy. Played by Sushant Singh Rajput, the Dhoni we see on screen is always quietly confident, with the beatific smile of someone who knows things will work out. It’s as if the makers are afraid the audience might think less of the character if he betrayed a few nerves.

As Dhoni’s career seems to grind to a halt—like the trains he’s supposed to keep tabs on—the film stalls as well. But intermissions (and their effect on screenplays) are strange things. When the film resumes, Dhoni is quickly elevated to the India A team, then to the national side. Suddenly, we’re not only watching cricket, but watching Indians watch cricket, which is just as entertaining. We see his sceptical father, his supportive mother and sister, friends who’ve supported him since his schooldays, his first coach, yell at the TV, advise him on how to play, blame everyone but him for his dismissal. For once, instead of being told how special Dhoni is, we see his greatness reflected in their reactions.

Apart from a brilliantly cast Herry Tangiri as a young Yuvraj Singh, the film avoids having actors play the Indian team of the time. Instead, it inserts Rajput as Dhoni into actual match footage. It’s the film’s one big gamble. On the one hand, the makers no longer have to run the risk of looking silly while recreating moments that cricket fans know by heart. Yet, this approach also results in a lack of immediacy. We never feel the heat of the moment, never hear the crowd’s chants as Dhoni would have heard them. We’re removed from the action—twice removed, in fact.

The film runs through the major signposts in Dhoni’s career, but we never get a sense of how victory and defeat affected the man or altered his game or personality. The 2007 World Cup loss, after which his effigy was burnt outside his home in Ranchi, is widely regarded as a turning point in his life. Here, it just comes and goes—a little detail in the inexorable rise of Dhoni. Same with the 2007 World Twenty20 win, the origin of the Dhoni-as-leader legend. Other Bollywood sports films such as Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, Mary Kom, even Sultan, have been able to link events in their protagonists’ lives to their athletic performance. Yet, even that doesn’t happen here. We see the tragic end of one of his relationships. Did this make him a more guarded person? The film isn’t saying.

Anyone expecting M.S. Dhoni to be even mildly controversial probably doesn’t know that one of the producers is Arun Pandey, the cricketer’s friend and business partner. The closest the film comes to ruffling feathers is when Dhoni, speaking as captain to the selection committee, asks for three senior players be dropped from the ODI team. However, the players aren’t identified, which renders the conversation slightly ridiculous (people around me started muttering “Sehwag?”, “Laxman?”). From the start, it was always likely that the film would end up a hagiography. Yet, even a glorified account of Dhoni’s career might have found ways to say insightful, non-contentious things about cricket in this country. There are a couple of scattered moments that’ll appeal to fans—when he hits a match-winning six in a school game, Dhoni does the same bat twirl that followed his sealing of the 2011 World Cup—but, considering this is a three-hour film, there should have been more.

For someone who doesn’t look particularly like Dhoni, Rajput does a remarkable job breaking down and reassembling the visible aspects of the man: that quick, confident walk, the clipped nature of his speech in English, those strange strokes. If Rajput can’t give us an idea of what Dhoni is like beneath the surface, it’s probably because the film is unwilling to delve deeper. A series of talented bit players come and go, enlivening scenes that would have otherwise fallen flat: Rajesh Sharma as Dhoni’s first coach; Kumud Mishra as an early benefactor; Brijendra Kala and Mukesh Bhatt as comic relief commentators.

M.S. Dhoni is a blandly professional piece of work. This might be enough for fans of the man, but for anyone who’d hoped that the first ever film about a still-active Indian cricketer might have traces of insight or daring, this will likely be a disappointment. The film ends with the World Cup win and Rajput’s face, followed by the director credit—a moment greeted with indifference by the audience I saw the film with. Only when the real Dhoni appeared on screen for a few seconds was some applause heard. The message seemed clear: Dhoni still strikes a chord, M.S. Dhoni not so much.

This review appeared in Mint.

The rebirth of Royal Opera House

In Stones Of Empire: The Buildings Of The Raj, Jan Morris writes that of all the performance venues the British built in Calcutta, Simla, Madras and Bombay, the only one with “proper theatrical flair” was the Royal Opera House in Mumbai. “This late-Victorian building was unmistakably the real thing,” she declares, before rhapsodizing about its “indispensable” first-floor veranda, chandeliers, Corinthian columns, arcade (“for flower-sellers, of course”) and gas-lit court, “all of which…seemed to await the arrival of Signor Puccini”. “Instead,” she writes, “the movies came.

The Royal Opera House—the only surviving opera house in India—has always been associated with cinema, long before it became a single-screen theatre. It was built by a Parsi merchant, Jehangir Framji Karaka, and Maurice E. Bandmann, an American who had worked as an actor in late 19th century England before setting up a theatrical empire. Known as the Bandmann Circuit, it stretched from the Mediterranean to the Far East, and brought productions ranging from musical comedy to ragtime and opera to the British colonies. He also took to interspersing his theatrical productions with films. When the Royal Opera House opened in 1915 (the building was inaugurated by King George V in 1911), the programme included a vaudeville act featuring an English dancer called Roshanara, and three films.

After a gap of more than two decades, a restored and refurbished Opera House will now be opening its doors to the public again. Though it won’t be used as a screening venue any more, the first public event here will nevertheless be connected to the movies. The opening ceremony of the 18th Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival will be held there on 20 October. Since prior access to the Opera House has been denied, we cannot confirm whether the new interiors retain the elongated pilasters, Italianate balustrades, Minton tile flooring, marble statues, crystal chandelier and gold ceiling of the original (according to the World Monuments Fund, which put the building on its at-risk list for 2012).

In its early years, the Opera House hosted concerts, the occasional opera, theatrical performances, lectures (Mahatma Gandhi addressed a conference there in 1934) and film screenings. In 1952, it was bought by the maharaja of Gondal, Vikram Sinhji; since then, it has been with the royal family. As a plush-looking single-screen theatre, it was a popular venue for film premieres. V Shantaram not only opened Dahej here on 19 May 1950, he also placed a cut-out of the star Jayashree, complete with a mechanically powered veil, by the road outside. Yet, by the 1980s, business had slowed. In 1993, the owners decided to close the theatre. The following decade and a half saw the building fall into disrepair.

In 2009, the process of restoring the Opera House began. Conservationist and architect Abha Narain Lambah was put in charge of the project. The damage to the building in the years it had remained closed meant that the structure had to be secured before the refurbishing could begin. “There were severe structural threats to this building,” Lambah told The Times Of India in 2015. “There were peepal trees growing out of it… The steel (girders) had corroded to the extent of becoming like lace. The jack arches had to be supported, balconies tied back, side verandas reconstructed and roof repaired.”

Once the structure was secure, work began on the interior. One of the challenges before Lambah was trying to get an idea of what the Opera House looked like in its heyday. “Various sources of information have been pieced together, from old photographs to documents, oral histories and investigative diagnostics,” she said over email. “Sharada Dwivedi initially helped with the historical information and then we found an old publication from 1917 with photographs of the theatre. We used oral histories as well, and Hindi films from the 1940s-1970s had clips of the Opera House, which helped piece its history, materials and colours together,” says Lambah. One of these clips was presumably the famous scene from Aag (1948) in which Raj Kapoor wanders on to a stage in a seemingly empty theatre and is “discovered”. It’s fitting that Kapoor featured the Opera House in his directorial debut—his family used it as a regular venue for their plays.

In August, Asad Lalljee, chief executive officer of Avid Learning, was brought on board to help plan a new cultural slate for the Opera House. “We are going to handle the social media, the PR and the programming,” he says. After the MAMI Mumbai Film Festival opening, they’re planning a soft launch with an opera piece by soprano Patricia Rozario, after which they’ll work out the kinks and open for business by mid-November. Lalljee says they will initially offer it as a performance space for theatre, dance, music and opera, and later start curating original programmes. “It doesn’t have to be traditional arts,” he says. “I love the idea of a traditional space juxtaposed with something cutting-edge. I’d love to do a TED (ideas) talk here.”

Even as it looks to define itself for a new century, one thing seems certain for now: The Royal Opera House will no longer be a movie theatre. “We don’t want any more movie hall,” Maharanisaheb Kumud Kumari, daughter-in-law of Vikram Sinhji, says over the phone. “They’re not successful at all. I mean, everyone is going to Inox now.”

Channel Orange: Review

Four years ago, Frank Ocean released his first studio album, Channel Orange, and overnight, became the Great New Hope of RnB. Yet, Channel Orange clearly wasn’t really RnB in the traditional sense. Ocean had, and still has, a charming—or, depending on your outlook, frustrating— aversion to verse-chorus-verse songwriting. With his new album, Blonde, he pushes his lush, languid sound further, and the results are just as stunning.

Blonde, which is different in its LP and Apple Music versions, kicks off with "Nikes", the anti-album opener. Ocean sings in a heavily treated voice about Carmelo Anthony and A$AP Rocky and two dozen other things; it’s only after the three-minute mark that we hear his voice clearly. The lyrics reference drugs (“Acid on me like the rain/weed crumbles into glitter”) and complicated relationships (“I’m not him but I’ll mean something to you”)—themes that’ll recur through Blonde—but with Ocean, the joy isn’t so much in the allusions and wordplay, amusing as those can be, but in the delivery—now jabbing like a lovelorn boxer, now relaxing into a seductive croon.

Even more than Channel Orange, this album is RnB refracted, reengineered into something that contains its DNA but not its traditional structures. "Ivy", co-written with ex-Vampire Weekend member Rostam Batmanglij, has Ocean singing over a dream-pop-like guitar figure. "Pretty Sweet" begins with an orchestral squall and ends with children’s voices singing “We know you’re sweet like a sucka”. The meditative, touching "White Ferrari" uses the melody and one line from The Beatles’ "Here, There and Everywhere". There are a few guest spots: Beyoncé and James Blake contribute discreet vocals, Kendrick Lamar a brief rap on "Skyline To", André 3000 the album’s most agitated moment on "Solo (Reprise)". But mostly, we’re alone with Ocean’s languid, druggy melancholia.

Unlike like D’Angelo with Black Messiah or Beyoncé with Lemonade, Ocean doesn’t seem to want to start a revolution. Trayvon Martin is mentioned, and a hurricane, but the songs mostly revolve around love and sex and being in the public eye: Drakean themes, but explored by a warier artist. Ocean’s fealty to hip hop shows in the rushed metre of his singing, the density of his writing, and that fact that Blonde is a producer’s, rather than a player’s, album. Sometimes, a bit of instrumentation breaks through—woozy keyboards on "Skyline To", Big Star-like guitar chimes on "Nights"—but you never get a mental image of a singer recording with actual musicians. It doesn’t matter. Dense and sexy and meandering in a way that only Ocean can pull off, Blonde is an immensely satisfying sophomore effort.

This review appeared in Mint Lounge.

The Magnificent Seven: Review

Let me say right off that I don’t consider the 1960 Magnificent Seven, a Western remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, to be a particularly good film. Crudely directed and poorly written, it was just about saved by Charles Lang’s photography and the tussle for screen space among Steve McQueen, Yul Brynner, James Coburn and Charles Bronson. That the new Magnificent Seven, directed by Antoine Fuqua, improves on it in most respects is hardly surprising. If it were comparable to Kurosawa’s film… well, that would’ve been something.

Whatever one may think of Quentin Tarantino’s last two Westerns, at least they dealt head-on with the implications of what it is they were showing onscreen. Fuqua’s film, set in the 1870s, has a posse so breathtakingly multi-racial it would seem to turn genre convention on its head. Yet, the film never suggests that the white men among the seven had any problem taking orders from a black man, or that there was any friction between a Native American and a former Indian killer. It’s revisionist for revisionist’s sake—there’s no political charge in its challenging of genre conventions.

The broad story is the same as the earlier films. Industrialist Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard) and his gang have been terrorizing a small town named Rose Creek. The citizens, desperate, decide to hire gunfighters to defend them. They convince bounty hunter Sam Chisolm (Denzel Washington), who in turn sets about hiring six other crusty veterans: Josh Faraday (Chris Pratt); Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke) and his knife-throwing sidekick Billy Rocks (South Korean actor Byung-hun Lee); a Mexican, Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo); a trapper, Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio) and a Comanche, Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier) – the last name a little nod to those who know their Kurosawa references.

After a complicated standoff, the seven settle down to lay traps, work out their respective neuroses and wait for the battle, which, when it comes, is rather magnificent. Fuqua may not be the most inventive of directors—he pans up bodies so many times it becomes comical— but he’s spent most of his career making action films, and the prospect of remaking the greatest fight scene of all time (Seven Samurai, not the Sturges film) seems to have fired him up. It takes up—or seems to take up—a quarter of the film’s two-hour running time. What comes before is unremarkable but diverting: Pratt overdoes his hyper-masculine shtick, but Hawke and Washington are watchable as always, and D’Onofrio is delightfully weird. In an astonishing show of restraint, Elmer Bernstein’s famous score from the 1960 film is only heard at the end. It’s a good decision: that joyous, leaping tune wouldn’t have suited this gritty remake.

This review appeared in Mint.

Parched: Review

What unites Nil Battey Sannata, Angry Indian Goddesses and Parched isn’t just that they’re female-led films, but that they’re built around conversations between women. In Hindi cinema, female-only conversation is rarer than you’d think. Even a film as forward-looking in its gender politics as Piku was mostly built around male-female or male-male conversations. Bajirao Mastani starred two of the Bollywood’s top female stars, but only allowed them a handful of scenes together. If we relied on our films for an idea of what women sound like when they talk to each other, we wouldn’t just be misguided, we’d be clueless.

Leena Yadav’s Parched doesn’t just redress the balance, it turns it on its head. There’s barely a scene in the film in which men are talking only to men, and only a couple where men and women are conversing. Instead, we get women talking to women, as friends, relations and sometimes, something much more complex (what does a widow say to her late husband’s mistress? You’ll find out). This, for me, is the most noteworthy thing in the film, though it’ll probably be its sexual frankness that gets talked about more.

In a small, conservative village in what could either be Rajasthan or Gujarat, 32-year-old widow Rani (Tannishtha Chatterjee) is struggling to put together the money to get her son married. Her friend Lajjo (Radhika Apte) is dealing with the stigma of being unable to conceive. Bijli (Surveen Chawla) is a stage dancer and part-time prostitute; she can’t move around the village without inviting comment. Janaki (Lehar Khan), 15 years old, is being married off against her will. With the exception of Kishan (Sumeet Vyas), all the men are unfeeling and close-minded, and, in the case of Lajjo’s and Rani’s (deceased) husbands, physically abusive.

All of this might lead you to expect a film that’s well-meaning, grim and difficult to watch. But Parched is unexpectedly exuberant, fired not only by the small and large acts of defiance of these women but also by their determination to claim their fair share of joy—in this lifetime, as Rani insists in one scene. This could be something as simple as the women of the village lobbying for a TV or as layered as Rani feeling the intimate touch of a hand, even if it’s one offered more in friendship than in lust, after a gap of 17 years. Even the jokey bawdiness of their banter is a kind of rebellion—a reclaiming of their bodies and their desires.

Parched premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival a year ago; since then, it’s been screened at festivals in various countries and released in theatres in the US and Europe. It isn’t hard to imagine this film set in a corner of rural India striking a chord with people in distant lands: it is lively, charged and accessible. Chatterjee, Apte and Chawla are thoroughly enjoyable, and find excellent support in Chandan K. Anand as Bijli’s besotted helper and Riddhi Sen as Rani’s entitled son. There are some concessions to exotica—three item numbers, musicians singing on top of a bus—but nothing egregiously silly, except perhaps Adil Hussain as a mystic lovemaker-for-hire.

When placed alongside films like Sairat or Killa—which give the impression that the makers have lived in the spaces inhabited by the characters—Parched feels like sharply-observed tourism. It’s worth noting that the film, which is very clear-eyed about the injustices women face in rural India, wraps up its storylines with a reasonable amount of optimism. Sairat had teased the viewer with a similar fantasy, before shattering the illusion with a head-shot of an ending. Intellectually, we know that social mores and regressive tradition will crush optimism and happy endings almost every time. Yet, there’s also that part of us which wants to see likeable characters who’ve put through the ringer delivered to safety, however improbable that may be. In this, as in other matters, Parched sides with the heart, not the head.

This review appeared in Mint.

From Kampala, with love

That Mira Nair has, over the course of 37 years and 10 feature films, largely avoided repeating herself is both remarkable and not remarked upon enough. Few directors today can claim to have worked in as many varied settings and styles. The Rourkela-born Nair has made hyper-realistic street films and lavish costume dramas, ensemble pieces and techno-thrillers. Her stories have taken place in 16th century India and post-9/11 Pakistan, in the American Deep South, Kolkata, New York, Havana and Delhi.

Those who’ve kept up with Nair over the years would have noted her penchant for celebrating her home cities on film. Kolkata, where she spent summers as a child, became one of the settings for The Namesake. New Delhi, where she went to college, got one of its defining films in Monsoon Wedding (2001). New York, where she currently spends half her year, was one of the settings for The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2012). And Kampala, the capital of Uganda, where she spends the other six months, was seen at the start of Mississippi Masala (1991). Now, Nair has made her first full film in Kampala: Queen Of Katwe, the story of Ugandan chess prodigy Phiona Mutesi, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival this month.

“If we don’t tell our own stories, no one else will,” Nair says, over the phone from Kampala. It isn’t surprising that Nair would speak of this story in personal terms. She has lived in Kampala for 27 years now, ever since she went to research Mississippi Masala and fell in love with academic Mahmood Mamdani there. In 2004, she founded Maisha Film Labs, a non-profit organization that provides scholarships, produces films and imparts skills. During our conversation, she repeatedly referred to the locations in the film in terms of their distance from her Kampala home.

Though Mutesi grew up in the slums of Katwe, just 15 minutes away from where Nair lives, the director hadn’t gotten wind of her exploits. It was a phone call from Disney executive Tendo Nagenda which brought Mutesi on to her radar in early 2013. Two weeks later, she met Mutesi—then on a tour of the US—in New York City. She was struck, she said, by the 17-year-old’s modesty and shyness. In Kampala, she met Mutesi’s mother, Harriet, who took her around the city in a van and showed her six houses they’d previously lived in and been forced to leave. They visited each other’s homes; Nair planted seeds in Harriet’s garden. “It’s only because I’ve seen your garden that I can ask you to plant mine,” Harriet told her.

Nair’s films are packed with strivers, underdogs and outsiders—Salaam Bombay!’s Chaipau, Monsoon Wedding’s Dubey, Amelia Earhart in Amelia—but Mutesi is a special case. As Tim Crothers wrote in a 2011 profile of her for ESPN The Magazine: “To be African is to be an underdog in the world. To be Ugandan is to be an underdog in Africa. To be from Katwe is to be an underdog in Uganda. And finally, to be female is to be an underdog in Katwe.” After her father died of AIDS when she was 4, Mutesi and her two brothers were raised by Harriet. Finding adequate food was a daily struggle; Mutesi would sell corn to help her mother out. One day, nine-year-old Mutesi followed her brother Brian to the local Sports Outreach Institute. She’d never played that game with the black and white pieces—all she knew was that they gave you porridge if you attended.

This is how Robert Katende entered Mutesi’s life. In a 2014 short film co-directed by Nair called A Fork, A Spoon And A Knight, we learn how Katende started the chess programme after he noticed children standing on the sidelines of the football games he coached. Katende taught Mutesi to play and, crucially, realized that the girl showed an unusual aptitude for the game. Soon, the 10-year-old was beating boarding-school children. In 2007, aged 11, she won the Uganda Women’s Junior Championship. She won it again the following year, and the year after that. In 2012, she became the first woman to win the open category of the National Junior Chess Championship. She repeated her triumph in 2013. She has been part of the Ugandan women’s team at the last three Chess Olympiads in Siberia, Turkey and Norway.

In 2012, the ESPN profile was expanded into a book, The Queen Of Katwe: One Girl’s Triumphant Path To Becoming A Chess Champion, by Crothers. This was adapted for the screen by William Wheeler, who’d worked with Nair on The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Meanwhile, Nair’s short film on Katende became a “calling card of sorts”, an introduction to the film’s themes and one of its primary characters. Disney green-lit the film—very quickly, Nair says.

It probably helped that the people Nair had in mind to play Harriet and Robert—David Oyelowo (Selma) and Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years A Slave)—were both Oscar-nominated actors. Nyong’o and Nair knew each other well; the actor had done a stint at Maisha, and had been Nair’s assistant during the filming of The Namesake. Nair says she sent both of them the script within hours of it being completed. Madina Nalwanga, a dancer by training, was cast as Mutesi; like the character she plays, she too is from the slums of Kampala, and sold corn as a child.

One of the biggest challenges for Nair was figuring out how to make chess—one of the most static of sports—into something visually compelling. She and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt devised different visual approaches for the various matches Mutesi plays. Katende, who was present for the duration of the shoot, designed the games, after which Nair and Bobbitt worked out how to shoot each individual one. In scenes with multiple games taking place simultaneously, this became all the more complicated. “The call sheet would have actual chess moves on it,” Nair says. Later, she and editor Barry Alexander Brown “cut the games emotionally, like a drama”.

After the somewhat underwhelming Amelia (2009) and The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Queen Of Katwe appears to return Nair to her roots. Salaam Bombay! (1988), her first feature, emerged from her fascination with the vérité tradition. She shot the 1988 film in 55 days in the brothels and slums of Bombay, with a cast and crew full of non-professionals and first-timers. Queen Of Katwe may have the backing of a big American studio, but it too was shot on location, in slums and crowded streets, with locals filling in many of the smaller parts (Nair estimated that out of the 100-odd Ugandans in the film, 80 had never faced the camera before).

If films about chess are a rarity on world cinema screens, so are films about Africa. African stories rarely make their way to screens outside the continent, and the ones that do are usually directed by foreigners. Queen Of Katwe could be seen as a corrective: an insider’s view of a specific corner of Africa, made by an adopted daughter who believes she’s “become Ugandan now”.

This piece appeared in Mint Lounge.