Saturday, April 23, 2016

Nil Battey Sannata: Review

Nil Battey Sannata is plenty smart, but it might have seemed smarter still had it been more trusting of its audience’s capacity to get the joke, or the point. It’s not enough that the mother should have high hopes from her daughter; the said daughter must also be named Apeksha (Hindi for “expectations”). Conversations are repeated with minor variations until their meaning is painfully clear. Apeksha’s declaration that she’s resigned to being a bai because her mother, Chanda (Swara Bhaskar), is one is then echoed in a talk Chanda has with her employer, and again in a scene with Apeksha and her friends. The pretty score by Rohan Vinayak is crammed into all those passages where viewers might have otherwise heard themselves thinking.

Chanda is a single mother whose one aim in life is to get her daughter (played by Ria Shukla), a wilful class X student, to study and make something of herself, perhaps become an IAS officer or a doctor. She speaks to the head of a coaching centre, who agrees to knock off 50% of the girl’s fee for a crash course before the board examinations, but only if she scores more than 50% in the pre-boards. But 50% is hardly a given with Apeksha, who cares little for school and even less for math (the title of the film—zero divided by zero—is a reference to her ability in the subject).

Much like last year’s Kaakka Muttai, director Ashwini Iyer Tiwari presents the hardscrabble working-class reality of Chanda and Apeksha’s lives without prettifying it, but enlivens the story with winsome characters and one quixotic twist. Hearing her complain about Apeksha, Chanda’s employer (played by Ratna Pathak Shah) suggests that she enrol in her daughter’s school. The logic behind this—that Chanda, who never got beyond class IX, will somehow begin to understand math and teach her daughter—is fuzzy to say the least, but Chanda allows herself to be persuaded. One might have expected something like the Rodney Dangerfield comedy Back To School to follow, but Nil Battey Sannata plays it relatively straight. After a rocky beginning, Chanda is accepted by her new classmates; all, that is, except the mortified Apeksha, who promises to study hard if her mother would just stop coming to school.

It’s difficult not to squirm through some of the overly simplistic moments in the second half—like when Apeksha accuses her mother of spending her evenings with a strange man (it also feels like she’s implying that she gets paid for it). Yet, this is also a rare Hindi film that focuses on a mother-daughter relationship that’s blessedly free of discussions about men, marriage and tradition. Chanda and Apeksha don’t always get along—the film doesn’t shy away from having mother ask daughter, “Tu mar kyun nahi jaati, kutiya?—but their attitude towards each other, with its mixture of exasperation and deep affection, feels honest and fresh.

In her second lead role after Listen… Amaya, Bhaskar slips under the skin of the wily, determined Chanda, her mobile face switching from broad comedy to panic as she realizes she’s scrounging for money to pay for dreams she isn’t sure her daughter even has. Shukla deserves credit for playing up Apeksha’s brattiness; it’s a combative, un-endearing performance, unusual from a child actor. Pankaj Tripathi, on the other hand, could hardly be more delightful as the principal of the school and Chanda and Apeksha’s sweetly sarcastic math teacher. As has rightfully happened with Bhaskar, it’s time someone cast him in the lead.

This review appeared in Mint.

Fan: Review

There’s a story, possibly apocryphal, from the early days of Beatlemania, about John Lennon’s Rolls-Royce being surrounded by hysterical fans. As they pounded on the car, the singer told his chauffeur: “Don’t worry. They bought the car. They’ve got a right to smash it up.”

What do stars owe their fans? If we follow Lennon’s line of thinking, the answer is: Everything. They are, after all, the ones who raise them up and allow them to live out fantasies while they make do with a simulacrum of the same: a song, a movie. Yet, fans are also irritants, raising their objects of affection to the level of gods, forcing them into seclusion, even—as with Lennon and his former fan and eventual killer, Mark David Chapman—turning on them violently.

The first, better, half of Fan asks us to consider both possibilities—that fans are owed everything and nothing. Shah Rukh Khan plays Gaurav Chandna, a middle-class north Delhi boy in his 20s who happens to resemble a famous actor, Aryan Khanna (also Khan). Gaurav is also a huge fan of the actor, filling his room with Aryan memorabilia and modelling his behaviour on him. He uses his likeness to the star to enter local competitions as a self-proclaimed “junior Aryan”. And it is with the winnings from one of these talent shows that he funds his maiden trip to Mumbai, where he plans to meet his idol in person and present him with the trophy he won.

When he arrives outside Aryan’s house (Mannat, Khan’s actual home in Bandra), Gaurav finds himself swept up in a sea of fans. “I’m not like them,” he tells the guard at the gate; this doesn’t gain him entry, but it does set the tone for the rest of the film. For, Gaurav really does believe he has a special connection with his idol. He manages to gain Aryan’s attention after he manhandles a rival star, forcing Aryan to have him arrested and roughed up. There’s an electric scene when they meet for the first time in a jail cell, with Gaurav showing the full extent of his delusion—he tries to hug Aryan and is rebuffed. “I’ve done so much for you,” he tells him, distraught. “Who are you to do anything for me?” is the cold reply.

It’s when Gaurav goes off the deep end and starts stalking Aryan in London and Dubrovnik that structural problems begin to appear in the film’s facade. Screenwriter Habib Faisal never gets around to answering why, in the first half, no one comments on how—give or take a smoother nose and thinner lips—Gaurav looks exactly like the most famous actor in the country, especially when key scenes in the second half are predicated on people not being able to tell the two apart. Director Maneesh Sharma ramps up the action once the film moves to Europe, and there’s a decently executed rooftop chase. Yet, by turning Gaurav into a borderline psychopath, any further insight into the celebrity-fan dynamic is lost.

Getting Khan to play not only a version of himself but his own lookalike is certainly a stunt, but it’s a successful one. This is not only because the narcissism involved in such a project is perfect for Khan—who has, over the years, raised self-love to the level of an art—but because his whole career has been a constant exploration of the idea of cinematic doubles, of polarities and splits in personality. Apart from bona-fide double roles in Duplicate and Don, he played a timid man and a ghost who assumes his form in Paheli, and a timid man and a robot who assumes his form in Ra.One.

Then there are films in which he’s playing a character who might as well be two people: the dutiful son and the ice-cold killer in Baazigar; the dorky husband and the smooth star in Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi. One of the pleasures of early Shah Rukh performances was the way he could seemingly switch personalities in the middle of a scene. Even after repeated viewings, how startling is that moment in Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge when he abruptly switches from teasing Kajol about what she may or may not have done the night before to convincing her, with the intensity of an obsessed lover, of his “Hindustani” moral code?

It’s been a while since Khan did anything that involved the switching on of one personality, let alone two. Fan is a welcome correction. Gaurav, who carries in his voice the hurt of a jilted lover, is a fascinating creation, but Khan also plays Aryan beautifully as a wearier, warier version of himself. The film bears little resemblance to what audiences have come to expect from a Shah Rukh vehicle: There are no songs, no heroines romanced. It’s difficult to imagine what his fans, jabra or otherwise, will make of a film that spares neither them nor their hero. In the world of Fan, both parties are entitled to smash up each other’s worlds.

Waiting for Shah Rukh

I reached Mannat, the sea-facing Bandra home of Shah Rukh Khan in Mumbai, at a quarter to 6. As always, there were fans outside, enjoying the evening breeze, maintaining the sort of patient vigil with no likely resolution that’s usually associated with religious faith. At 6pm, I threaded my way through a group of young selfie-takers, past a man photographing his greying parents in front of the gate, and told the guards I had an appointment.

Two cups of tea, a sandwich and four-and-a-half hours later, I was finally ushered in to meet Khan. In the intervening time, my fellow interviewers—assorted journalists, critics and RJs—swapped stories about long waits to meet stars. The hardened ones wore theirs like battle scars: 12 hours to meet Tabu; 6 hours to interview Sonali Bendre. Everyone agreed that a couple of hours was par for the course with Khan. Several scribes seemed a little light-headed after their sessions. “He was very nice,” a young woman told her friends upon emerging. “He actually hugged me.”

That certain members of the press also get a little giddy in Khan’s presence is a small reminder of the hysteria that has surrounded him for most of his waking moments for the last 23 or so years. It’s that which makes his latest release, Fan, such a delicious prospect. Khan plays a Shah Rukh-like super-star, Aryan Khanna, as well as his super-fan and obsessive lookalike, Gaurav. A Yash Raj Films production, it is directed by Maneesh Sharma (Band Baaja Baaraat, Shuddh Desi Romance) and looks considerably darker than anything Khan has been in over the last few years. We spoke to him about the implications of playing himself and his own fan, and the surprising abundance of doubles throughout his career.

Let’s start with a newspaper report that surfaced recently, in which you’re quoted as saying that Yash Chopra was the first to narrate the story of ‘Fan’ to you.
No, he didn’t narrate, yaar. I think what happened was, I was talking to some people in my van, and in the conversation I was talking about Yashji and me and Dil To Pagal Hai. It was completely misread. Or maybe I said Yash Chopra instead of Maneesh, but no, he didn’t know about this film.

So the idea for the film was originally described to you by Sharma?
Maneesh had given me the idea around 10 years ago. He was working with Adi on Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi, so he had met me before that. He narrated the idea; I liked it, but I didn’t feel any of us were ready for it. Adi felt Maneesh should do some films on his own; he probably felt that because I’m a little spoilt and have to be treated with lots of love and care and gentleness, this way Maneesh would get the patience of making films with Shah Rukh. Then, when I was doing Chennai Express, I met Maneesh outside the studio and said, chal, picture banate hain.

When you said yes, were you prepared for the mental toll a film like this might take?
You’re right when you say that, but I wasn’t aware. I was aware of the physicality of it all, with the make-up and everything. Very early on, we decided there was going to be some amount of likeness, but that he can’t be a duplicate. And we had to figure out how to make him 24-25, with me being 50. So we did a couple of tests, failed miserably a couple of times, but continued and stuck to the film.

We finished the film a year back—the VFX took that long—so I’ve forgotten some of the process, but yeah, it was very schizophrenic. I mean, when you’re doing a commercial double role, good-bad, it’s not exactly superficial but you can pull it off. But this is quite internalized. It’s awkward for me to watch it.

Was it a stretch for you to enter the psyche of a super-fan?
The craft part—dialect, body language—is something you have to do as an actor, that’s your job. But neither Maneesh nor I were certain about the mindset of such a person. I can turn around and say, it’s a love story. To me, he’s a lover of a different sort, and I can borrow from my knowledge of being in love. It’s an entity we’ve all worked on—Maneesh’s dialogue, my enactment of it, the VFX—and it’s taken a shape of its own. We know who he is, but we don’t know how we made him. Psychologically, it’s quite an overwhelming experience.

The trailer brought back memories of ‘Darr’, another Yash Raj film in which you played an obsessed lover
I think the character I played in Darr bordered on the psychopath. This one isn’t like that. We were very clear that this can’t be a re-visitation of Darr, that would be stupid. But obviously, lot of people will say, similarity hai.

When you’re 24-25, you never realize the magnitude of the good or the bad you’re doing. Life at that age is based on instinct, love, just being. You don’t even realize how much life will change with your decisions because you’re too much of a believer. So I think Gaurav is based on a 24-year-old kid who doesn’t know what he’s doing, not because he’s stupid but because, yeh toh theek hai na, yaar...

You’re playing a version of yourself, as well as someone whose entire life is built around imitating that version of yourself. Did it all become a bit too meta at times?
I can’t divulge much of the story but there are moments in the film which are extremely schizophrenic. He playing the star, being like him but having his own personality, the star seeing him for the first time and realizing he’s a lookal… (takes a deep breath). I saw the film yesterday. I was wondering how I did it at the time, because although there was great clarity from the director and the technical team, I was four times confused.

If we look at your filmography, the idea of doubles, of polarities, turns up constantly; not just in your double roles but in films like ‘Baazigar’ and ‘Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi’ and ‘Dilwale’, where one person can almost be two separate personalities. Is this a theme that fascinates you?
I think actors choose an extension of themselves for their roles. After 25 years of being a star, there is a split personality to me, 100%. There are always two facets to me; my family feels it, my close friends feel it. I have a word for it—“demotional”. I’m extremely emotional and detached at the same time. Has it happened now, is it in my genetics? I don’t know. But yeah, I have got these two effectively opposite edges where I’m extremely emotional and sensitive, and I’m extremely detached and solo. That dichotomy maybe gets transferred when I’m choosing the films that I’m doing.

Even if it isn’t the case, people are likely to assume that the star figure you’re playing is, in effect, Shah Rukh Khan.
It’s quite fictional, and beautiful fictional. I’m not like that star. Aryan is not Shah Rukh, he’s more seasoned, more practical, more held back. Even in private life, he’s not like me. The flamboyance is also missing. We were very clear that we were not going to derive out of my life and put it there.

Your two releases this year, ‘Fan’ and ‘Raees’, explore darker territory than your last few films. Was there a conscious decision to explore riskier projects?
No. I’ve said this often enough, but people don’t believe me—they say he’s shifting gears. One has to understand that the films that are coming out now were signed two years ago. Raees was just a story I liked—it’s my Carlito’s Way, my Scarface, my take on the bootlegger film. Fan also just happened, as did Gauri Shinde’s film. It’s just the state of mind I’m in when I sign a film.

The important thing is always to be happy waking up in the morning, wearing make-up and shooting, because if I’m not happy, then nobody is happy. I have no reason to act but to feel happy. I don’t want to get into an X-crore club or listen to what the trade thinks or what the critics feel. I’ve been too long in this business. All of it will affect me if it’s negative, but after 25 years, 60 films, 16 hours a day, the core issue is, when I wake up in the morning, is it fun for me?

So you don’t have any particular sort of film in mind for future signings?
The idea is very clear in my head: that I want to do a fluffy film, or I want to do a superhero film, or an action film. But that has to match with an offer, so if there’s nothing, I go to the second choice in my head, and so on. There’s no concerted decision. I’ve never got a film written for me, never told a director, yeh nahi karoonga, aise likh kar la. The film has to be fully desired and made by the director, then everything follows. I want to work with directors who are dying to make their films and, kindly enough, want me to be a part of that.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Emily’s D+Evolution: Album review

In 1961, Norman Mapp released a track called "Jazz Ain’t Nothin’ But Soul", on which he sang: “For me, jazz is all the truth to be found/Never mind who’s puttin’ it down”. Bassist-singer Esperanza Spalding covered it as a bonus track on her 2012 album Radio Music Society, but when she sings it live, she likes to begin with a spoken preface. “Yes, I’m a jazz singer, it’s true,” she told the audience at the 2009 Austin City Limits festival, “but it’s not, maybe, what you might be expecting.”

Emily’s D+Evolution, Spalding’s fifth album, has a fair bit of jazz, some soul, and a bracing dose of what you might not be expecting. Gears and genres change without warning, rarely allowing listeners the comfort of an easy groove. "Rest In Pleasure" starts off with a tasteful jazz-rock squall, which segues into something resembling mainstream R&B, before a wordless chorus turns everything choppy. "Farewell Dolly" is a warped version of a show tune, the Broadway-ish vocals sitting uneasily atop ghostly bass runs by Spalding.

The jazziest thing about the album isn’t the arrangements (there are hardly any horns) but rather, its disinclination to settle for easy hooks and familiar structures. In this, she not only resembles modern artistes, from Erykah Badu to Kendrick Lamar, who’ve used jazz to unusual ends but also earlier songwriters with a penchant for messing with form and structure. On "Judas" and "One", Spalding’s phrasing sounds like Joni Mitchell circa Hejira and Mingus, albums on which her music took a jazzy, fractured turn. I was also reminded of Mitchell’s contemporary Laura Nyro, a cult figure now, but largely unappreciated in her time. Nyro had a gift for dark melodies and seat-of-the-pants changes, qualities present throughout Emily’s D+Evolution. Indeed, the sinuous "Earth To Heaven" could be an out-take from Eli And The Thirteenth Confession, Nyro’s best-known album.

In 2011, very much against the run of play, a barely known Spalding won a Grammy for Best New Artist, beating Drake, Justin Bieber, Mumford & Sons and Florence + The Machine. This brought her to wider public notice, though she remains a niche, rather than ubiquitous, presence on the music scene. Emily’s D+Evolution, though her most fully realized work, is unlikely to change this. The songs are funky and cerebral, lithe and unpredictable. "Ebony And Ivy" opens with breathless spoken word, before mutating into contemporary rock. I Want It Now is an even more bizarre mélange of ethereal backing vocals, jazz guitars and Spalding—or is it the alter ego, Emily, which she’s assumed for this album?—theatrically snarling, “Give it to me nowww.”

Emily D+Evolution can neither be relegated to the background, nor is it exactly music you can get down to. The good news is that today’s play list-making, genre-hopping audience is unlikely to be fazed by this. “No more acting these predictable roles,” Spalding sings on "Unconditional Love". Free your mind, and the rest will follow.

This review appeared in Mint.

The Jungle Book: Review

Solidly persuasive as it is, Jon Favreau’s live-action adaptation of The Jungle Book can ultimately be seen as testament to the durability of Disney’s original animated version. Those familiar with the 1967 film will note that very little has changed. Bagheera is still moody and magnificent. Baloo sings "The Bare Necessities". Kaa hisses “trust in me”. Wolf cubs continue to be criminally cute. Last year, The Force Awakens showed there were huge profits to be made from well-rendered nostalgia. Favreau walks that line, essentially remaking the 1967 film for a generation brought up on 3D spectacle.

It may sound like a backhanded compliment, but this Jungle Book is a fine children’s film that’s happy to be just that. It’s scarier than the original, of course, but I would imagine that children nowadays will take a 3D tiger leaping out from the screen in their stride. Though the pace is frantic, the overlying narrative is simple enough for a five-year-old to grasp. “Man-cub” Mowgli, raised by wolves as a member of the pack, must learn what it means to be human. He’s helped out by Bagheera the black panther and Baloo the bear, and hunted by the fearsome Shere Khan, a tiger who harbours a grudge against human folk.

Some of the film’s weakest moments are when it reaches back to its source, the collection of stories by Rudyard Kipling published in 1894. Kipling’s “law of the jungle” is repeated throughout—presumably so children have it memorized by the time it turns up in the climactic moments—but it cannot shed its portentousness (my favourite moment is when Baloo hears Mowgli recite it and says, “That’s propaganda.” He’s absolutely right—Kipling was a thorough imperialist, and the last word in the poem is a command: “Obey!”). Like the 1967 film, Favreau refrains from explicitly mentioning India, though one Hindi phrase, present in the original text, creeps in: bandar-log. Only, the way Bill Murray pronounces it, “bandar” rhymes with “gander” and “log” with “hog”.

Mowgli has always been, for me at least, the least interesting character in The Jungle Book, but that’s not the only reason I found the one flesh-and-blood performance in the movie grating. Neel Sethi, the boy of Indian origin who plays Mowgli, speaks in the petulant tones of a child in an American sitcom. This was offset, thankfully, by some terrific voice-work by Murray (Baloo), Ben Kingsley (Bagheera), Idris Elba (Shere Khan) and Christopher Walken (King Louie), not to mention the dilemma posed by Kaa the python, a singular nightmare for those who love Scarlett Johansson but can’t stand snakes. This is allied to to the uniformly impressive CGI, with the surfaces of jungle and animal alike rendered remarkably tactile, as the viewer is whisked from one breathless set-piece to another.

Favreau’s film has been released in India a week before its US premiere. Those who view this as a victory of sorts should note that the only things that are “Indian” about the film are its origins. But, then, The Jungle Book has always been a white fantasy about India, land of pythons, tigers, loincloths and bandar-log. Perhaps one day someone will create a revisionist version, with Shere Khan as the colonizing figure and Mowgli the spirit of 1857. Until then, this pounding, potent film will do just fine.

This review appeared in Mint.

Love Games: Review

Purple prose aficionados will find a lot to admire in Love Games. The film opens with a few lines of verse: “Roses are red, violets are blue, sex can be dangerous, but love can be too.” Not quite Neruda, but still positively witty compared to what writer-director Vikram Bhatt has to offer later on. “I missed your lips,” Ramona (Patralekhaa) tells Sam (Gaurav Arora). And later on: “I like to fuck you, but I like life more.” Which leads up to: “The need for two lovers to be together is more than two fuckers.”

After losing her husband to a multi-storey fall in the opening minutes, Ramona embarks on “love games” with Sam, with whom she’s been having an affair. The challenge they set themselves is a variation on Dangerous Liaisons: find a happy couple at a party and be the first to seduce one of them. However, in what I assume is a common occurrence during swinger sex games, Sam falls for his intended target, Alisha (Tara Alisha Berry). He's a cutter, she’s an abused wife—which, in the limited world-view of a Bhatt production, means they are made for each other. She is the missing piece in his jigsaw puzzle, which we know because he tells his psychiatrist that he feels like a piece is missing from his jigsaw puzzle, a metaphor made even more explicit when a piece of glass stained with his blood falls on to the roof of her car.

As one might expect, Sam falling in love drives the already certifiable Ramona even further around the bend. Soon, shots are being fired, bodies are being buried and simple phrases such as “Are you pulling something out?” are being mangled, mostly by Patralekhaa, whose delivery of Bhatt’s English-laden dialogue is painfully awkward. “I’m very bad at this Shakespeare kind of English,” she says at one point. We'd never have guessed.

Amidst all the madness, Arora and Berry find a way to be watchable. The same cannot be said about the film, which flies right past so-bad-it’s-good and lands somewhere in the murky region between ridiculous and pitiable. A final word of praise for the background score: if you aren’t following the film carefully, it will fill you in. “This is so exciting,” Ramona trills in one scene. “Exciting! Exciting!” the soundtrack reiterates. The shining phone screens and busy fingers of the three other people in the hall indicated they didn’t share this sentiment.

This review appeared in Mint.

Ki & Ka: Review

My experience of watching Ki & Ka was enlivened considerably by the fact that more than half the movie hall I was in had been taken up by what appeared to be a giant kitty party. They arrived in the morning, a chattering, excited group of middle-aged women, about 50 strong. I happened to be seated in their midst, which meant that I was constantly trying to separate what was unfolding on screen from their evaluation of it. They giggled whenever someone said “chaddhi check”, the film’s running euphemism for sex. There were murmurs of “Byomkesh Bakshi” when Rajit Kapur appeared. And when an actual kitty party took place on screen, there were shrieks of laughter.

It is possible that my fellow audience members will look upon Ki & Ka with more fondness than I was able to muster. It is, after all, a film that sings, from start to finish, praises of the housewife, the homemaker. Like R. Balki’s 2009 film Paa, in which Abhishek Bachchan played Amitabh Bachchan’s father, this one too is built around roles reversed: that of husband and wife. Kabir’s (Arjun Kapoor’s) aim in life is to emulate his mother and be a stay-at-home husband; Kia (Kareena Kapoor) is an ambitious marketing professional with zero interest in running a home. But they like each other and soon marry: Ki and Ka, career gal and house husband.

Now, this is not an uninteresting premise; few, if any, Hindi films have explored this particular dynamic. Unfortunately, the film keeps playing the same few notes over and over again. During one of their first dates, Kabir gets upset when Kia suggests that running a home is, essentially, doing nothing. An hour and a half later, they are still fighting about the same thing. I lost count of the number of times we were invited to admire the resilience, the sacrifice, the artistry of the homemaker. By the 1-hour mark, the film has said all it had to, and then it just goes and says it again.

Whatever Balki’s strengths might be—and there is some pleasure to be had in the urbane glibness of his writing—subtlety isn’t one of them. As Kabir gains a measure of fame as a model homemaker, Kia (whose own career is flourishing) becomes utterly, irrationally jealous. Just as one is trying to process this late veer into Abhimaan territory, the actors from that film, Amitabh and Jaya Bachchan, turn up as themselves. It’s a lovely interlude, and if it wasn’t presented to us as an all-too-obvious “message”, it would have worked a lot better.

The narrative obviousness is matched by stylistic unsubtlety of the highest order. When Kabir needs to come up with money quickly, he takes a ride on his Segway at night. The situation is perfectly clear to us, but Balki nevertheless fills the soundtrack with Kabir’s voice saying things like, “I need money. Quickly. What can I do?” Similarly, to convey the success of Kia’s business plan, he resorts to an on-screen graph with a rising arrow. There’s also the perplexingly busy camerawork by P.C. Sreeram, whose use of close-ups is both disorienting and distracting. If there’s a good reason why a sensible two-shot of Kareena and Arjun should be followed by a side-angle view of the latter’s beard from a few inches away, it was unclear to me.

I’ll end with a minor, though telling, grouse. For a film this saintly, I was disappointed to note the replacement of one kind of prejudice (against housewives) with another (against hired help). Kia and Kabir’s maid is shown to be untrustworthy, which is then used as justification by Kabir to install a spycam to keep track of her activities while they are on holiday. That’s the problem with making a film that considers itself a sort of public service. The higher you raise yourself, the farther you have to fall.

This review appeared in Mint.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

Even before you’ve watched a frame of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, the bad decisions have begun. Who at DC or Warner Bros thought it would be a good idea to attach The Lego Batman Movie trailer to this? It’s strangely self-sabotaging, playing a parody of the same thing you’re asking audiences to take seriously for the next 2 hours. With the memory of Will Arnett’s gravel-voiced Lego Batman beatboxing to avoid talking about his feelings still fresh in my mind, Ben Affleck’s series of scowls and growls seemed especially silly.

With his sober-sided Batman trilogy, Christopher Nolan gave DC movies a visual and tonal template that was very different from the increasingly irreverent Marvel output. This straight-faced approach was fine as long as Nolan—who structured his films so tightly that the audience had little room to maintain any ironic distance—was in charge. But then came Zack Snyder with the 2013 Superman reboot, Man of Steel, which had all the angst of the Nolan DC films but none of their narrative drive or genre innovations. DC responded by giving him an even bigger project to helm—Dawn of Justice: 150 minutes of Superheroes Who Need Shrinks.

After an opening voice-over that’s a near-parody of the hardboiled tone Nolan adopted (I recall the nonsense phrase 'diamond absolutes'), and the obligatory scenes with young Bruce Wayne seeing his parents killed and falling into a cave full of bats, we get down to the main business of the film: setting the two superheroes on a collision course. First, we see how much damage to property—and, one assumes, life—was caused by the climactic battle between Superman (Henry Cavill) and General Zod in Man of Steel. As the city crumbles around him, Bruce Wayne (a greying Affleck) drives around frantically, saving a little girl and a trapped employee and glaring at the skies. It’s hardly a surprise when he tells Alfred (Jeremy Irons, taking over from Michael Caine) later in the film: “He has the power to wipe out the entire human race.... If there’s even a 1% chance he’s our enemy, we have to take it as an absolute certainty.”

Even as Batman’s distaste for what he sees as Superman’s unchecked power grows, Superman starts wondering whether Gotham’s Dark Knight is getting out of hand, what with his new penchant for branding criminals. A director with a little humour in him might have also hinted at pettier reasons for their animosity, like Batman being unhappy about Superman’s constant good press. No such luck. For Snyder and DC, comics are serious business.

As one might expect, the fight between the defenders of Gotham and Metropolis is a long, long time coming. Before that, we are taken through a largely pointless subplot about US military weapons supplied to African militia—which seems to exist only to provide Lois Lane (Amy Adams) something to do—and an unapologetically fan-serving one regarding the formation of the Justice League. We are also introduced to the latest incarnation of Lex Luthor, eccentric billionaire and Superman’s most memorable adversary. He is played here by Jesse Eisenberg, who obviously felt the need to balance out Affleck’s dourness and Cavill’s spot-on impression of a grumpy wax figure. In doing so, he creates a whole new problem for the film: His facial and verbal tics are so outrageous, they just emphasize how safe and boring everything else is.

Snyder has always made dark, grimy-looking films, and his R-rated ventures (300; Watchmen) had a certain gory flair to them. However, Man of Steel and this film indicate that he doesn’t quite know how to enliven a mainstream PG-13 movie. Nolan’s visuals were equally dark, but they had a noir slickness to them. Here, the darkness is unattractive and fairly depressing.

It isn’t just the visual palette, the tight-jawed performances or the largely dull writing (screenplay by The Dark Knight’s David S. Goyer and Argo’s Chris Terrio). Dawn of Justice is downright incoherent at times. One ambitious dream sequence had the theatre audience looking at each other in confusion, and the action scenes were a mess of sudden cuts and explosions. All the talk about unchecked power and acting unilaterally must have some political undertones, but I’ve no idea whether the film considers Superman a symbol of unchecked US aggression or a patriot slowed down by bureaucracy or something else altogether. The film’s conception of Batman as a jaded crime fighter, made cynical by 20 years on the job, is more intriguing, but we aren’t given enough time with him to understand how he got this way.

In the end, two massive egos in capes and suits, both sons of murdered parents, face off. Maybe comic book fans will be thrilled by the sight of Batman returning Superman’s punches. Perhaps they won’t find the Wayne-Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) dynamic identical to the Wayne-Selina Kyle one from The Dark Knight Rises. The audience I saw it with seemed desperate to find reasons to cheer and whoop—a sad commentary on the balance of power in movie making and watching today. Personally, I find it more than a little depressing that films like these—bloated, inept, making heavy weather out of pieces of pulp entertainment tossed out for children decades ago—have become such an inescapable part of our lives.

This review appeared in Mint.

When you can’t say @#%*

In October, writer-director Kanu Behl appeared in a sketch video by comedy collective The Viral Fever. Censor Qtiyapa shows Behl bringing his first film to a “Pre-censor Board”, where directors such as Hansal Mehta and Vasan Bala tell him that all this cussing and extramarital sex just won’t fly. We love your film, they say. Just clean it up.

Like all good satire, Censor Qtiyapa cuts close to the bone. A couple of months before the sketch released, Behl went before the actual censor board with Titli. The film premiered in the Un Certain Regard section at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival and travelled the festival circuit from Chicago to Hamburg. Behl, however, knew that this would mean little to the Central Board of Film Certification and was prepared for the eventuality of cuts and an A-certificate.

The first interaction, with the CBFC’s examining committee, started off well. “They told us, we really like the film, it’s one of the best we’ve seen of late,” Behl says. The committee told Behl that they wouldn’t recommend any cuts—a significant victory, for Titli is disturbingly violent in parts—but that he would have to take out “all the language”. The makers were aghast—that would come to some 70 cuts. They decided to appeal to the next stage of the CBFC: the revising committee. That discussion was along similar lines—the committee members loved the film, but there were guidelines to follow. Finally, a compromise was reached. Three scenes with an inordinate number of expletives were identified; Behl offered to remove the expletives from one altogether and reduce the cussing in the other two “by 50%”. He could keep the rest.

Just when Titli seemed to have got through fairly unscathed, it came up against the immovable object that is Pahlaj Nihalani. A producer of commercial melodramas in the 1980s and 1990s, Nihalani took over as CBFC chairperson in January 2015, after his predecessor, Leela Samson, and nine board members quit, citing “interference, coercion and corruption”. Summoning the film-makers to his office, he told them that the decision of the revising committee was invalid, that there was no such thing as reducing invective by 50%. (In an ideal world, one would agree.) He offered them two alternatives: Submit the film to the revising committee again or incorporate the committee’s suggestions for the three scenes and remove all the other expletives. With a release date looming, the film-makers had to agree to the latter.

Behl wasn’t the only writer who faced this sort of humiliation last year. These last 14 months have seen an unprecedented amount of censorship, much of which has centred on the language used in films. In a scenario where an unofficial war has been declared on words, consider the plight of those responsible for these words. What does it mean to have exclamations, sentences, entire scenes you’ve written ripped out by a committee that’s following guidelines dating back to when 'saala' was an unpardonable insult? Are screenwriters today starting to second-guess themselves whenever they put anything mildly offensive on paper? Are they becoming, like in that TVF sketch, their own pre-censor board?


In June of 1930, Donald Bradman, then 21 and playing for the first time at Lord’s, made 254. This innings would go down in cricket history for its utter chance-less mastery of an attack. Bradman himself regarded it as his finest knock. “Practically without exception every ball went where it was intended to go,” he wrote in Farewell To Cricket, “even the one from which I was dismissed”.

Once in a while, when the planets align and the literary gods look down benevolently, writers get to feel the same way: Every word goes where it is intended to. Good writers are compulsive rewriters, modifying, embellishing, agonizing over their choice of punctuation, syntax and tone. But once they’ve finished fiddling and are satisfied with the results, they like all the words—not just the ones that make them look smart or funny, but the little half-thoughts and interjections and grunts that are, in their heads at least, the bedrock of their characters’ personalities.

For screenwriters—who, quite often, must protect their vision from producers, financiers, directors and the demands of the market—the idea of a hard-won final draft is even more important. “From a writer’s point of view, it’s a deliberate act of putting certain thoughts, certain philosophies, certain points of view on paper,” says Juhi Chaturvedi, the screenwriter of Vicky Donor and Piku. “It’s not random, ki galti se likh diya toh kaat do.” I heard the same thing from writer after writer—that pretty much everything on the page is there for a reason. Which is why it hurts when they are told, as they so often are by the CBFC, that they cannot use the words.

Chaturvedi has a reputation as a writer who can say what needs saying without raising the hackles of the CBFC. In May, Piku sailed through the censors untouched, even the scene where Amitabh Bachchan declares that his daughter is not a virgin (the same word was almost deleted from 2014’s Finding Fanny, another film starring Deepika Padukone). A few years earlier, Vicky Donor became the first Indian film—the first mainstream film, at any rate—about sperm to open in theatres across the country. Today, Chaturvedi says, she isn’t sure whether a film about a remarkably fertile sperm donor could even be made, let alone passed.

Though its name was changed from the Central Board of Film Censors in 1983, the CBFC has never really thought of itself as a ratings body. Relying on the exhaustive and often vague guidelines of The Cinematograph Act of 1952, the board has always been keen to cut, mute, reduce and blur, even when it has rated the film as “A”. Certain topics have always been, and continue to be, verboten: religion, caste, nudity, excessive violence and anything that might irritate the government in power. As a result, there’s never a time that someone or the other isn’t feuding with the CBFC. But all things considered, language seemed to be one area where things were loosening up.

This process began in 1996, when Bandit Queen landed on Indian screens with its Molotov cocktail of an opening line: “Main hoon Phoolan Devi, behenchod.” It continued through such disparate films as Hyderabad Blues, Omkara, Ishqiya, Delhi Belly, Paan Singh Tomar and Gangs of Wasseypur. By 2014, it looked like film writers might soon be able to take language for granted and start pushing other kinds of boundaries. Then, in January 2015, Samson resigned, Nihalani took over and immediately began with his mission of washing Indian cinema’s mouth out with soap.

From the start, Nihalani made no bones about the kind of moral approach he would like to see in Indian films. Asked by The Hindu whether he thought people might accuse him of being conservative, the then newly appointed CBFC chairperson said: “I don’t mind being called that if I have to serve the nation. You have to take care of the new generation, on whom the future of the country depends.”


“I can see it has started affecting me. It has started affecting people around me—the directors I’m working with, producers, my writer friends. You still fight and stuff, but in your head, whenever you’re writing something, you think, yeh toh kabhi pass nahi hoga. And then you think, do I want to go down this road?”

I’m sitting in Sudip Sharma’s study, listening to him wonder aloud whether the CBFC’s actions over the past year are driving writers to self-censorship. In a sense, Sharma is perfectly placed to talk about the current state of affairs. NH10, a film he wrote about a Gurgaon couple stalked by a group of homicidal Jats, was one of the first to bear the brunt of the new board’s stricter rules regarding language. Sharma described meeting the examining and revising committees as a “fascinating process, provided it isn’t your film”. “A lot of bargaining takes place,” he says. “You actually find yourself saying things like, ‘Okay, if you’re removing the slap, leave saali.’”

NH10 was eventually released with 14 cuts, a list of which one can find on the CBFC website. It wasn’t just the spoken word the board had a problem with. A key scene has Anushka Sharma staring at the word 'randi' scribbled on the wall of a bathroom stall. Sudip Sharma and director Navdeep Singh were initially asked to blur the word. They protested, arguing that the scene was integral to the film’s structure (there’s an echo, with 'raand saali' appearing on another wall towards the end). They were eventually allowed to “reduce the visual by 50%”—apparently, a glimpse won’t engender the same moral corruption that a longer look might.

Why does Nihalani end up getting blamed for a decision like this? One reason could be his visibility; more than previous chairpersons, he is regularly in the news, defending the board’s verdicts. It could also be because, according to several people I spoke to, he’s made himself an essential part of the certification process. While his predecessors tended to avoid involving themselves on a regular basis, only intervening when the film in question was especially controversial, Nihalani is, by all reports, more than happy to be in the thick of things. In May, board member Nandini Sardesai told The Telegraph that the chairperson was clearing the big releases himself instead of allowing the board to do so. Several people, writers and otherwise, told me that while the members of the revising and examining committees were usually sympathetic and open to discussing cuts, the chairperson just wasn’t someone you could reason with. One person recalled how, during a meeting, Nihalani told him: “What do you new film-makers think of yourselves? I’ll tell you how films are supposed to be made. Just wait and see what kind of films will be made in the next two years.” (Despite multiple attempts to reach Nihalani by text, email and phone, we received no response.)

The CBFC guidelines are vague enough for a chairperson to impose his or her own value system on the decision-making process, if so desired. Nihalani has made it clear in interviews that he isn’t comfortable with the idea of on-screen cussing (“Normal civilized people don’t abuse the way we see in films”); violence (“The violence can always be suggested without bringing it on screen”); nudity (“People are paying money to watch [Sunny Leone]. How can there be tolerance for all this?”); and anything remotely connected to homosexuality—which has manifested in particularly indefensible ways. Early on in his tenure, the word 'lesbian' was muted in Dum Laga Ke Haisha. More recently, in an unprecedented move, the board slapped the trailer of Aligarh with an “A” certificate, which meant it could only be played before other A-rated films. When asked about this, Nihalani said that the subject of homosexuality wasn’t for children or teenagers.

Amazingly, this wasn’t even the strangest CBFC decision concerning Aligarh. In a couple of scenes, the central character, a gay professor, is shown yawning and dozing off in court. According to the film’s writer, Apurva Asrani, they were told to shorten these scenes as they constituted, in the eyes of the CBFC, contempt of court. “It’s not even a ‘tareekh pe tareekh’ scene, where the character is challenging the court,” Asrani says. “He’s sleeping because he’s just been harangued and he’s lost his house.”

For sheer strangeness, though, this is surpassed by a recent decision by the examining committee to deny a certificate to a Gujarati film called Jivan Sathi. The reason, according to a letter from the committee to the producers, is: “The end of the film shows bigamy, which is not as per Hindu Marriage Act.” Even if this were a reason to deny a film a certificate, it shows the board’s double standards. Kis Kisko Pyaar Karoon, in which the popular TV comedian Kapil Sharma plays a man with three wives and a girlfriend, was cleared for release in September.


Whether this particular censor regime is resulting in large-scale self-censoring by writers is difficult to gauge. One might have to wait a little longer, for films written in the Nihalani era, in order to see whether themes and modes of expression have altered significantly. The writers I spoke to all felt differently about whether their own writing was being affected. Sharma was one of the few who openly admitted to fallout; after his experience on NH10, he went back to a script he had written when, as he put it, the mind was free and without fear, and made changes to it, “taming it a bit, scaling it back”. Asrani, on the other hand, said that what he had faced with Aligarh made him even more determined not to compromise. Behl confirmed increasing signs of self-censorship in the film community and said that while his first concern was to “let the film flower fully and be what it wants to be, there are more fears now, because you know what can or will happen. I try and not think about it. But it does play on your mind.”

Often, it isn’t so much about being driven to self-censorship as working in an atmosphere of vague, constant unease. Screenwriter and comedian Varun Grover says that he often feels the censors are over his shoulder, watching him as he writes. At the same time, he also feels that the censorship situation in India—pre- and post-Nihalani—often forces him to come up with writing solutions that are better than the more explosive ones he might have otherwise gone for. He gives the example of a memorable line from Masaan, in which an inspector tells Richa Chadha her life is over. “I might have written tumhari zindagi toh jhaant ho gayi hai, but it wouldn’t have been passed. So I came up with tumhari zindagi toh condom ho gayi hai, which is a better line.”


Chaturvedi talks about the disappointment that the current board does not seem to take milieu or context into account before muting language. “In certain environments, you can’t have sophisticated, well-spoken people,” she says. “Go to Assi Ghat in Benaras; you’ll see that everyone there abuses—men, women.” A week after this conversation, I found myself in the office of Chandraprakash Dwivedi, a CBFC board member who, coincidentally, happens to have directed an as-yet-unreleased Varanasi-set film called Mohalla Assi. Dwivedi, best known as the director of the National Award-winning 2003 film Pinjar and for his role as Chanakya in the 1990s TV series of the same name, joined the CBFC at the same time as Nihalani. It was his March 2015 letter to the chairperson that, when leaked, was the first indication that there were members of the board who weren’t comfortable with the list of expletives (including 'bastard', 'rakhail' and “double meaning any kind of words”) that Nihalani wanted banned from all films.

It’s unlikely Mohalla Assi would be passed by the very board Dwivedi is a member of. Though there’s only a patched-together trailer online—one which Dwivedi disavows—the footage seems to confirm Chaturvedi’s observation that one could go down to the ghats and come back with one’s dictionary of abuses radically expanded. Though he reserved comment on the film, Dwivedi says he and “other like-minded members” had raised the issue of context as far as strong language was concerned in the second board meeting. “Per se, we are not against abusive language,” he told me. “It cannot be a blanket ban.”

In Dwivedi’s estimation, one of the biggest problems with the CBFC is that an inordinate amount of power ends up concentrated at the top. “The guidelines are framed in such a manner that it leaves a lot of scope for the chairperson to exercise his rights,” he says. “But that also makes the entire process futile, because the decision is not by majority. There are nine members (in the revising committee), and if one member disagrees, it is referred to the chairperson. Now, it is the chairperson’s interpretation, his wisdom, to say yes or no.”

There is, as Dwivedi points out, and as Nihalani tried to while being lambasted by Arnab Goswami on Times Now (“I’ve been waiting for you for a long time,” the anchor crowed at one point), an option for film-makers unhappy with the CBFC’s decisions. They can approach the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal, a statutory body set up under a retired judge. Films submitted to the tribunal when they had not been cleared by the censors range from MSG: Messenger Of God to Park Street, a film on a rape that took place in a Kolkata neighbourhood in 2012. Increasingly, this is becoming a go-to option for directors and producers with little faith in the CBFC. Recently, the producers of Vikram Bhatt’s Love Games went to the FCAT after the CBFC ordered them to make 18 cuts. The film was cleared. There are also unconfirmed reports that the Ekta Kapoor production Great Grand Masti is likely to go straight from the examining committee to the tribunal.

Even the writers I spoke to seem to regard the FCAT as a more viable option than the CBFC grind. Behl says he would probably take his next film straight to them. “We had considered going with Titli, but the release had already been pushed, so we decided against it,” he says. Grover agrees, saying that taking a film to the tribunal makes it seem like more of a “serious case”. Of course, there’s always the chance that the FCAT will deny the film a certificate, as it did with Porkalathil Oru Poo, a film about the rape and murder of a journalist by the Sri Lankan army, or The Textures Of Loss, a documentary on the impact of violence on ordinary Kashmiris. The only option then left is to go to court—a risk few producers or directors are willing to take.


Right now, almost everyone has their hopes pinned on a committee appointed by the government to review and recommend changes in the functioning of the CBFC. The presence of Shyam Benegal at the helm has raised expectations; the director has made it clear that he is no advocate of censorship. The committee even asked the public to send in recommendations—more than 6,600 mails were received through a website called Save Our Cinema. Yet, many forget that in 2013, a similar committee was set up under retired Delhi high court judge Mukul Mudgal. The report, which is available online, recommended, among other things, a more nuanced film classification system and clearer guidelines as to the appointment of regional officers and “advisory panel” members (who form the bulk of the examining and revising committees). As is often the case with expert panels constituted in this country, none of its recommendations were implemented.

In the end, all everyone’s asking for is a little respect: writers and directors from the committees that decide their fate; board members who find their decisions undermined by a single nay vote; possibly even the chairman, struggling to maintain the sort of moral absolutism that young film-makers today just don’t relate to. A little predictability would be nice as well: In the past few months, Spectre had its kissing scenes shortened, while The Danish Girl was released with frontal nudity. The sooner all concerned know exactly what they can’t do, the sooner they can go about trying to do exactly that.

This piece appeared in Mint Lounge.