Monday, May 1, 2017

Baahubali 2: The Conclusion: The Review

At several points during Baahubali 2: The Conclusion, the audience I was watching it with whooped and whistled. Mostly it was at something Prabhas did, like throwing a tree at charging soldiers or jumping from one flaming, stampeding bull to another. At times, I felt a cheer rising within me as well, but it would remain stifled, often as a result of an over-ambitious visual effect or an especially florid bit of Hindi dubbing, but also because it’s difficult to applaud aspects of a film while disagreeing with the whole.

Some films will set your pulse racing even as they espouse the exact opposite of your worldview; others you’ll want to like but not be able to bring yourself to. Baahubali 2 is undoubtedly a spectacular action film. It’s also a tradition-bound, caste-conscious macho militarist fantasy.

The first Baahubali film ended with Kattappa (Sathyaraj) explaining to Shiva (Prabhas)—actually Mahendra Baahubali, rightful heir to the kingdom of Mahishmati—why he killed his father, Amarendra Baahubali (also Prabhas), the former king. His explanation took the form of an extended flashback, which continues in the sequel as we’re beaten over the head with scene after scene designed to show how virtuous and beloved of his people Amarendra was. We’re also reintroduced to Devasena (Anushka Shetty), the princess of a small state, who becomes Amarendra’s wife. Shetty thus plays wife and mother to Prabhas in the same film. If they ever have another film in the series, it might be “Baahubali: Freudian Issues”.

Because we already know that Kattappa is going to kill Amarendra, everything is necessarily a build-up to this moment. It’s a long, long time coming—and a good indicator of how invested you are in the mythology of the Baahubali universe is to note if the wait starts to weigh on you. Not that there are many dull moments: in one 30-minute stretch, for instance, writer-director S.S. Rajamouli follows a sneak attack in the forest with low comedy, a boar hunt, more comedy (sold with hammy exuberance by Subbaraju, playing an inept warrior), a song sequence and a bona-fide battle. It feels like there’s always an action scene, or a song, or a set-piece happening. It’s as if the makers have determined that if anyone is going to get bored, they’ll have to do it in spite of the narrative, not because of it.

Baahubali 2 isn’t the kind of film that waits for its audience; it comes to you. Whatever historical time period this story is taking place in, it isn’t the Age of Nuance. A follower of the evil king, Bhallala Deva (Rana Daggubati), can’t just be a schemer, he has to be a pervert too; Amarendra can’t just be a regular benevolent ruler, he has to give up his dinner for poor children and be fed by their teary mothers. The plot is reasonably well worked out, but character motivations are often sketchy—including, crucially, Katappa’s. Even by epic action film standards, the performances are broad. In the rare moments when there’s more talk than action, the film assumes the hyperbolic qualities of a tele-series; the scenes featuring Sivagami (Ramya Krishnan, overdoing the eye-popping a bit) and Devasena, in particular, would make for a great Ekta Kapoor-style mythological soap (Kyunki Rajmata Bhi Kabhi Saas Thi?)

Still, what makes Rajamouli’s films unique is that, in the midst of the most incredible silliness, there’ll suddenly arrive a breath-taking image or a fluid, heart-pounding shot. I was laughing when, during a battle scene, Mahendra catapults himself and a few others onto a terrace with the help of a handy tree. But once he lands, the scene transforms into something ridiculously attractive—a continuous sideways shot of him slashing his way through enemy ranks, blood flying in theatrical arcs.

For a film that’s highly invested in ritual and tradition, it is perhaps revealing that when Baahubali 2 wants to make a point about valour, it reaches for the grammar of the caste system. Time and again we’re told what it means to be Kshatriya; how, when it’s required, a true Kshatriya will reveal their warrior nature. This sort of talk is worrying—whether or not Rajamouli has included it unthinkingly. To mention one caste is to refer to the entire system; to extol the virtues of one is to deny the same qualities in the others.

For those who think questions of caste and sexism and racism shouldn’t be directed at big-budget entertainers, I can only say that I believe there couldn’t be anything more important. Hollywood is making further inroads into the Indian film market every year. If Baahubali 2 is a hit, we might be seeing many more “event films” of its kind in the near future. Whether we ask much of these films is up to us.

This review appeared in Mint.

The man who kept the movies safe


P.K. Nair died on 4 March 2016. I wonder if someone had shown him a British Film Institute short released months before his death. Titled Film Is Fragile, this minute-and-a-half video is a call to preserve celluloid film. In a series of chase scenes from existing movies, the scenery dissolves in the manner of deteriorating film reels. The effect is oddly beautiful, but the point being made is this: Film preservation is an urgent activity, delay is death.

Nair would likely have agreed. He understood the importance of film preservation before almost anyone else in the country, and worked all his life towards this goal. He joined the National Film Archive of India as assistant curator in 1965 and over the years, through his doggedness and guile (legend says he would make a clandestine duplicate of any print that was loaned to the NFAI if it wasn’t already in the archive), managed to save countless films from almost certain extinction. But apart from being an archivist, Nair had a deep knowledge of, and pronounced views on, cinema—something which Yesterday’s Films For Tomorrow, the first collection of his writings, celebrates.

As screenwriter and author (and the book’s editor) Rajesh Devraj states plainly in his excellent introduction: “Nair was not a writer by profession, and it shows sometimes in these occasional writings.” This is undeniable. Nair’s prose is perfectly serviceable (especially when one considers the febrile, hyperbolic nature of most non-academic film writing in India), occasionally vivid, but mainly a vessel to get his thoughts across. It seems significant that the pieces in this book are drawn from film society anthologies, festival booklets and books on film preservation: publications which would likely prize ideas above prose style.

Some of the most evocative writing comes in the first two chapters, in which Nair recalls his first movie-going experiences in 1940s Thiruvananthapuram. This is the sort of cinema that cannot be contemplated now, with narrators for the silent films, and five or six breaks in the action so that the reel could be changed. His family wasn’t keen on cinema, so Nair would sneak out late at night and watch the second half of the last screening. He would then catch the first half at a later date.

Credit: Film Heritage Foundation
More than the polemics, the pieces that stand out in Yesterday’s Films are the ones informed by personal memory. There’s a tribute to the director Mehboob, whom Nair had worked with as an unpaid assistant in the 1950s. Nair’s facility with cinema allows him to compare Mehboob’s shift from character dramas like Andaz to large-scale epics like Mother India to American film-maker William Wyler becoming Cecil B. DeMille (though it could just have as easily been the Wyler of Great Expectations and Brief Encounter becoming the Wyler of Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago). Similarly, the chapter titled “Film Preservation In India” is a fascinating account of locating old film reels and obtaining them for the NFAI. To save some of Dadasaheb Phalke’s rare films, he transported highly inflammable nitrate reels in a taxi from Nashik to Pune. “Every time the car took a bump, my heart jumped,” he writes.

Even if you’re an inveterate film-lover, Yesterday’s Films presents a few obstacles. There is a fair bit of repetition of both argument and fact—something to be expected from someone who wasn’t a professional writer, and, more crucially, wasn’t leaving all these pieces behind to be read (the book also includes diary entries and files found on his computer). The writing, as previously mentioned, is a little stolid; in addition, the scolding tone he adopts in his earlier pieces about mainstream cinema will probably displease those who like to mix in a little Govinda with their Gopalakrishnan. My advice would be to ignore the troughs and wait for the crests: the chapter on the song in Indian cinema; the comparison of Mauritz Stiller’s Erotikon (1920) and Santosh Sivan’s The Terrorist (1997); his elevation of P.C. Barua’s Devdas over Bimal Roy’s version because of the sympathy for its female characters.

After years of being Indian cinema’s best-kept secret, Nair is finally in the public eye (even if it’s a very niche, arthouse cinema-loving public). Readers of Yesterday’s Films can supplement the experience by watching Celluloid Man, Shivendra Singh Dungarpur’s 2012 documentary on Nair, which serendipitously turned up on Netflix earlier this month. The one thing the book hints at and the documentary confirms is the high esteem Nair is held in by those whom we would consider legends of Indian cinema. In the book, Nair writes that whenever he was asked why he didn’t direct himself, he would reply, “I would rather make film-makers than films.” The tributes heaped upon him in the film by Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Gulzar, Basu Chatterjee and Mrinal Sen would suggest that he did.

This piece appeared in Mint Lounge.

Jonathan Demme: Something wild and wonderful

 
Those who watch a lot of movies but don’t pay attention to the credits might be surprised to learn that the person who made The Silence of the Lambs also made Melvin and Howard, or that the director of Something Wild is also the director of Philadelphia. Actually, Jonathan Demme made all these movies, as well as Stop Making Sense, Married to the Mob, Citizens Band and Rachel Getting Married. There’s a Demme for every occasion – only now, sadly, there’s no Demme. The director died on Wednesday morning, aged 73, in his Manhattan apartment, of complications from cancer and heart disease.

Demme began his film-making career with Roger Corman, the B-movie producer who launched, among others, Francis Ford Coppola, Peter Bogdanovich, Joe Dante, Ron Howard and Curtis Hanson in the movie business. Demme directed three films for Corman, including Caged Heat (1974), a women-in-prison film that’s considered something of an exploitation classic. “I’ve known a number of directors who’ve taken a job because it’s a little picture and said, well, I’ll just toss it off,” Corman said on the WTF With Marc Maron podcast earlier this year. “I’ve known other guys – and Demme is one of them – who, if I give a women’s prison picture, will say, ‘I will make the best women’s prison picture ever made.’”

His first non-Corman film was for Paramount, a 1977 Nebraska-set comedy called Citizens Band (retitled Handle with Care). Next up was Melvin and Howard, based on a true story about an unlikely beneficiary mentioned in Howard Hughes’ will. It was his first exceptional film, and Mary Steenburgen won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her portrayal of Melvin’s first wife, sparking the legend of Demme as a facilitator of Academy Award-winning (or just plain great) performances.

Demme followed this with a series of sparkling comedies: Swing Shift (1984), with Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn; Something Wild (1986), with Melanie Griffith and Jeff Bridges; and Married to the Mob (1988), with Michelle Pfeiffer. In each, you can see Demme’s ear for music, his knack for detail, and his genuine curiosity about all his characters, major and minor (in her review of Something Wild, critic Pauline Kael said: “I can’t think of any other director who is so instinctively and democratically interested in everybody he shows you.”) He ventures into non-fiction were just as remarkable: the fluid, inventive Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense (1984); Swimming to Cambodia (1987), built around Spalding Gray’s monologues; Cousin Bobby (1992), about his relative, a fiery Episcopalian minister.

Had Demme continued making his idiosyncratic mid-budget films into the ‘90s, how would history regard him? It’s worth noting that Demme’s next two films – both quite different from anything he’d done before – would be the ones he’d become widely associated with. First, there was the clinical brilliance of The Silence of the Lambs (1991), which won five Oscars: for film, director, actors (Anthony Hopkins, Jodie Foster) and adapted screenplay (Ted Tally). Two years later came the AIDS rights film Philadelphia, with yet another actor in a Demme film, Tom Hanks, going on to win an Oscar.

Over the next two-and-a-half decades, Demme made only six features, of which the spiky, intimate Rachel Getting Married is probably the best. He did direct a number of documentaries, many of them about music, including three with Neil Young. His influence runs deep; PT Anderson has cited him as one of his biggest stylistic influences, while Wes Anderson termed Demme’s trademark close-ups “the greatest”. Demme’s outlook was best summed up in a tribute by his friend and frequent collaborator, Talking Heads frontman David Byrne. “The fiction films, the music films and the docs are all filled with so much passion and love,” Byrne wrote on his website. “He often turned what would be a genre film into a very personal expression. His view of the world was open, warm, animated and energetic.”


Noor: Review

Any film that begins with an “ancient quote” attributed to Buddha believes in the power of the Weighty Statement. Such a film is Noor (based on Saba Imtiaz’s novel Karachi, You’re Killing Me!), where director Sunhil Sippy and dialogue writer Ishita Moitra Udhwani have their characters saying things like “If I’ve learnt anything it’s that I should live for today” and “You remind me of the person I used to be”. These just aren’t the sort of things people say in their day-to-day lives, which is why they stick out awkwardly in a film that adopts—from its opening voice-over onwards—a breezy, conversational tone.

On the other hand, the writers (Sippy, Althea Delmas-Kaushal and Shikhaa Sharma worked on the screenplay) show impressive speed and skill in sketching their titular character. Noor (Sonakshi Sinha) is klutzy, frumpy (if only by movie star standards), dissatisfied with her job as a sensation-chasing journalist, and prone to complaining about her weight, her love life, and her life in general. She wants to do “issue-based broadcast journalism”; instead, she’s assigned local stories about a woman who never takes her helmet off and a man who only walks on his hands.

I’m unsure whether the film is knowing or oblivious about Noor’s ineptitude at her job. When she lands an actual story—an organ harvesting racket carried out by a doctor working under a charitable trust—she conducts exactly one interview (which could be easily discredited) and immediately heads to office and demands that her editor, Shekhar (Manish Chaudhary), put the story on air. Issue-based broadcast journalism is such a breeze—or so the audience is led to think until things suddenly go south. Yet, even when this happens, the film is more concerned with Noor being cheated out of her story than the high probability that, had it been aired, the story would have invited scorn and possibly a lawsuit.

While an unconvincing portrait of a working journalist, Noor is still a fully realized character: both under- and over-confident, capable of staring down her mentor but also of giddily crushing on 40-something photojournalist Ayan (Purab Kohli). Sinha conveys Noor’s many frustrations through a series of grimaces, eye rolls, pouts, scowls and goofy grins; there’s an amusing dorkiness to Noor, even if her general appearance is a little too perfect for someone who’s just woken up hungover. Kohli supplies smarm and little charm (“Hey gorgeous” is how he opens a Skype conversation with someone he’s only just met); comic Kanan Gill, debuting as Noor’s super-nice friend, Saad, is very watchable, but could have done with a little more definition from the writers.

The film’s social commentary is as well-intentioned as it is heavy-handed. Despite Smita Tambe’s searching performance as Noor’s hired help, there’s a sense that she exists in the film so that her employer can find her purpose in life (there’s a bordering-on-insensitive moment involving a Facebook request). It’s difficult to take Noor’s truth-seeking avatar—interrupted as it is by a holiday in London—too seriously. Her near-constant state of discontentment is, however, noteworthy. As a well-off youngster who’s vaguely dissatisfied with her life, she might be grouped with Wake Up Sid’s Siddharth, Tamasha’s Ved and Dear Zindagi’s Kaira. This may be why the latter stages of Noor are so difficult to believe. Can the mildly disaffected ever lead the revolution?

This review appeared in Mint.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Begum Jaan: Review

Begum Jaan packs more Partition into 130 minutes than one could possibly hope for. It’s dedicated to Manto and Ismat Chughtai, even though its brand of wit suggests cudgel, not scalpel. The film has migration, communal violence, multiple rapes, a brief scene of interreligious harmony, burnings, lynchings, dismemberings, the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League, and more symbols of spatial, geographical and emotional division than you could shake a Ritwik Ghatak memoir at. This isn’t historical drama, it’s Partition porn.

There is, at the heart of it, the germ of a good idea. It’s 1947, and India is about to gain freedom—and become two nations. When the authorities get down to the construction of a border fence, they find out the line passes through a brothel run by the formidable Begum Jaan (Vidya Balan). She’s handed an eviction notice by two officials from what will soon be India and Pakistan, Srivastava (Ashish Vidyarthi) and Ilyas (Rajit Kapoor), old friends who now find themselves estranged (there’s a metaphor in there somewhere). She tells them that she isn’t moving, and that if they try anything, she’ll see that their legs and hands are partitioned from their bodies.

Though it’s set almost entirely in 1947, writer-director Mukherji (remaking his own Bengali film Rajkahini) has no problem appropriating modern-day crises to fit, or awkwardly dangle off of, his narrative. Take the opening sequence, which begins on a bus in Delhi in 2016. A group of drunk men board and start hassling a young couple, forcing them off the vehicle. They start pummeling the boy, and two of them bear down on the girl. Just then, an old woman with braids in her hair comes forward and, to their horror, starts to strip. The allusions to the 16 December Delhi rape case and the 2004 anti-AFSPA protests in Manipur are impossible to miss, and their twin use in this scene has a lurid, opportunistic quality.

This scene starts the film off at a level of hysteria that never really abates. The women of the brothel are from Punjab, Haryana, Gujarat, Bihar and Rajasthan; their conversations are a cacophonous mix of accents, none of which sound quite right (including a variety of north Indian dialects in your first Hindi film seems like quite a risk). Balan initially plays Begum Jaan as a steely manipulator but, as the film progresses, she’s made to hyperventilate and flail about like a less capable actor. The film gathers a number of dubious, if specific, honours along the way: worst throwing-stones-in-a-river-as-an-outlet-for-feelings scene, most implausible averting of attempted rape, worst Mexican standoff ever.

This film has nothing new to tell us about this tumultuous time in our history: the British were apparently very bad, so were politicians on both sides, so were royal families. This is the kind of broadly simplistic film in which a little girl can ask, “Is it the same thing to kill a Hindu and a Muslim?” The awkward combination of Partition-era exploitation and TV serial-ish melodrama is further exacerbated by occasional arty touches. One particularly jarring visual effect recurred in the scenes with Srivastava and Ilyas. Whenever there was a close-up on either, only half the face appeared onscreen. I’m partitioning their faces, Mukherji appears to be saying. Go figure.

Begum Jaan harks back to two films from the heyday of parallel cinema. The first is Shyam Benegal’s Mandi (1983), a far superior film about a group of prostitutes bossed around by a fearsome madam. There are also several nods to Ketan Mehta’s Mirch Masala (1987): Naseeruddin Shah appears in both films as a rapacious man with a taste for gramophone music, both feature a bearded protector with a gun. These films had some of the most fascinating female characters in all of Hindi cinema; Begum Jaan isn’t even the best film about a strong, unapologetic woman released in the last few weeks. That would be Anaarkali of Aarah, a film that serves its defiance with a side of humour instead of beating viewers over the head with a history book.

This review appeared in Mint.

Hearing the fear

Their occasional merits (and enjoyable demerits) aside, the background score in a Ramsay brothers film was something to be endured or, at best, ignored. Yet, many of the films that inspired the brothers have wonderful music. There’s something about horror that frees up composers, allows them to experiment in a way that comedy or action might not allow. From genre-straddling geniuses like Bernard Herrmann and Ennio Morricone to cult artists like Popol Vuh and Goblin, the history of horror film music is varied and surprisingly rich.

It began, as so many things in cinema did, with German silent film. Horror was a recognised genre by the 1910s, but a score written specifically for a film was still a novelty. One of the first horror films for which a score was commissioned was Robert Wiene’s seminal The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920). It was composed by the Italian Giuseppe Becce; sadly, the original was lost, though it was later “reconstructed”. Two years after Caligari, Hans Erdmann composed a famous score for the appropriately titled Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (the “gloomy melodics” of FW Murnau’s vampire film found approving mention in a review of the time). This too was lost, and recreated decades later.



Erdmann’s isn’t the only famous Nosferatu score. For his 1979 version, Nosferatu the Vampyre, with the vampiric Klaus Kinski in the lead, Werner Herzog reached out to the experimental band Popol Vuh. By then, horror film music had developed its own traditions and standardized sounds. Talkie horror scores began in Hollywood with composers like Max Steiner (King Kong, 1933) and Franz Waxman (Bride of Frankenstein, 1935). The tradition was continued across the Atlantic by James Bernard, who composed for Hammer films in Britain. Along with the gothic tones and sudden orchestral stings that came to define horror film music, electronic instruments (like the otherworldly theremin) started to be used in the 1950s. And in 1960, for the shower scene in Psycho, there was the one-note shriek of Bernard Herrmann’s violins, as definitive a moment in horror scoring as the opening chord of A Hard Day’s Night is for pop music.





Horror film music started to really flower in the late 1960s and ‘70s. Across the world, old and young composers experimented with new sounds or found appropriate ancient ones. Polish composer Krzysztof Komeda used lullabies, demonic chants and plangent jazz for his Rosemary’s Baby score. In Japan, Hikaru Hayashi combined traditional Taiko drums and human cries in his harrowing scores for Kurneko and Onibaba. Popol Vuh’s Nosferatu soundtrack had sitar and tanpura along with folksy pickings that wouldn’t have been out of place on a Fairport Convention record. It’s possible that Herzog was inspired by the soundtrack to the British pagan horror film The Wicker Man, which had released a couple of years before, and used old-timey English music instead of a traditional orchestral score.



If some composers were paring their sound, others were ramping it up. The 1960s saw the birth of giallo – stunningly lurid Italian slasher films. Perhaps the most important giallo practitioner was Dario Argento, several of whose films were scored by Ennio Morricone, who’d already redefined the Western soundtrack with his work on the Sergio Leone films. Morricone created a sensual, slightly Euro-trashy sound for Argento and other horror movie directors. Argento also collaborated with prog group Goblin, whose dense, bass-heavy sound can be heard in cult classics like Suspiria and Profondo Rosso.

The most influential horror composer to emerge in the ‘70s, though, might have been John Carpenter, who scored nearly all his films himself. Carpenter’s soundtrack work is nearly as well-known as his films today – you can hear his distinctive throbbing bass and creeping synths in everything from the soundtracks to It Follows (Disasterpeace) and The Neon Demon (Cliff Martinez) to the theme music for TV shows like Stranger Things and Legion. (A different, and equally influential, approach to synth-based horror movie scoring can be heard on Tangerine Dream’s soundtrack for Katherine Bigelow’s vampire film, Near Dark).



Today, it’s become increasingly difficult to distinguish between horror soundtracks and regular ones. The mad screech of Scott Walker’s opening theme for The Childhood of a Leader suggests an Omen remake rather than an arty psychological drama. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ squalling score for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, or Jóhann Jóhannsson’s for Sicario, are more ominous than most horror film soundtracks, while Mica Levi’s music for Under the Skin (which, all things considered, is a horror film) is more haunting than one might expect. It’s not like film-makers today have abandoned the old-fashioned orchestral shriek when the monster shows its face. Yet, many have realized that mixing a little beauty into the horror makes for a more unsettling and memorable experience.

This piece was part of a horror film cover package in Mint Lounge.

Mukti Bhawan: Review

Thithi and Mukti Bhawan would make an excellent double bill. Both are indie comedy-dramas – even if Thithi, in both style and process, is indie-er than Shubhashish Bhutiani’s debut feature (not to mention most other Indian films in recent memory). Both immerse themselves in the traditions and idiosyncracies of a local culture. Above all, both are films about death – Bhutiani’s about an impending demise, Ram Reddy’s about the aftermath of one – that find more gentle humour than morbidity in the subject.

In a scene that’s mildly reminiscent of Don Corleone’s death in the garden in The Godfather (I may be reading too much into things, but oranges seem to equal death in both films), Daya (Lalit Behl) dreams of chasing after his younger self as his mother’s voice calls out to him. Taking this as a sign, he informs his family – son Rajiv (Adil Hussain), daughter in law Lata (Geetanjali Kulkarni) and granddaughter Sunita (Palomi Ghosh) – that he believes his time on earth is up, and that he’d like to live out his last days in Varanasi. Accompanied by the very reluctant Rajiv, he checks into a bare-bones hotel called Mukti Bhawan – literally, “place of salvation”.

There is actually a Mukti Bhawan that exists in Varanasi, its guests all nearing the end of their lives. If you find the idea morbid (as I did going in) then you might be pleasantly surprised (as I was) by the film’s gently comic, highly empathetic attitude towards this strange, sad arrangement. Instead of looking depressed or terrified, the inhabitants of the hotel in the film have a lightness to them – it’s as though the tough part was deciding to come here, and now that they have, their minds are at ease. Even as Rajiv, an insurance salesman, frets and fusses, Daya joins the old-timers for convivial yoga sessions, newspaper readings and after-dinner TV-watching.

Mukti Bhawan is quieter than most films, indie or otherwise (Tajdar Junaid’s pleasant, if typically Hindie, score is used sparingly). Even with death approaching, life must go on, and Bhutiani seems fascinated by the sort of mundane, everyday stuff that directors usually skip. For what seems like a 30-minute stretch, all we’re doing is watching Daya and Rajiv bicker and negotiate daily tasks like cooking for themselves (throughout the film, food is used a bridge between characters). There are moments when I wished there was more to quicken the pulse, but the careful advancement of plot is made palatable by some wonderful character sketches, like the gruff hotel manager (Anil K. Rastogi, very droll) and the widow Vimla (Navnindra Behl), who’s been staying there for 18 years, and whom Daya strikes up a friendship with.

Bhutiani, who’s also written the screenplay (dialogue by Asad Hussain), has a knack for undercutting potentially heavy emotional moments. A parting is made farcical through the worship of a disinterested-looking calf, and a teary family fight is rendered hilarious by a faltering net connection. There’s also some very effective doubling: one son who calls his mother during mealtimes, another who can’t find time to talk with his father while they’re eating; two characters who, for different reasons, stopped writing poetry.

As opposed to the moments when the camera goes in search of some detail, I felt this film was at its best when it stayed stationary and allowed a scene to unfold. One such long take comes late in the film. When it begins, there are two sleeping dogs in the frame. One of them wakes up, scratches itself. A goat enters, exits, reappears a little later. None of this is in any way “important”. At the same time, I have no recollection of what was being discussed in this scene. But I remember the dogs and the goat, just as I remember other stray moments from the film: Lata searching for a subtle way of asking her husband whether his father’s premonitions of death come with a date attached, and the catch in Behl’s voice as Daya recalls his son’s masoom (innocent) poems.

This review appeared in Mint.

Asghar Farhadi’s fractured cinema

Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman takes its title from Arthur Miller’s best-known play. Death Of A Salesman is performed by a Tehran troupe in the film, and the first few shots are of an empty theatre, with stagehands at work and the cast warming up off-screen. Then, suddenly, we’re jolted from a world being constructed to one coming apart. In a chaotic, unbroken two-minute sequence, we see a young married couple, Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti), fleeing their collapsing building as it groans and shakes and cracks form in the windows.

Rana and Emad’s world will soon fracture further, but before that, Farhadi sketches their life in a series of deft strokes. Both are stage actors (they play the central couple in the Miller play); Emad is also a schoolteacher, popular with his students. They seem fairly well off, artistically minded; they’re considering starting a family, and are on the lookout for a new flat. They’re pointed to one by a friend, and it’s only after they move in that they learn that the previous inhabitant was a prostitute.

One night when Emad is out, Rana is badly injured when a stranger enters their house and walks in on her in the bathroom (whether there was physical assault is left ambiguous). This shocking incident sets up the rest of the film, but a key scene some 20 minutes later has little to do with it. Emad, exhausted, puts on a film for his students and dozes off in the dark. As schoolchildren anywhere in the world might, they start fooling around, making a video of their teacher sleeping. Emad wakes and directs his frustration at a student with the phone. He threatens to involve his parents, only to be told by the others that the child’s father is dead.

The emotional seesawing of this scene is pure Farhadi. We start the scene feeling terrible about Rana, but the children are undeniably funny. We crack a smile at Emad sleeping, then feel bad for him, then worry that he’s being excessive. The same shifting of sympathies will happen under more challenging circumstances later in the film, as Emad becomes obsessed with finding the intruder. The unravelling of personalities pushed to extremes is a hallmark of this director’s work. You identify with a Farhadi character at your own risk; there’s always a moment of ugly, human failing waiting to happen.

This February, The Salesman won Farhadi his second foreign-language Oscar. He had earlier won the same award for A Separation, which put him on the global cinema map when it released in 2011. Viewers stunned by the film’s frenetic pace, intricate structure and psychological acuity dove into his back catalogue, discovering similarly accomplished works like Fireworks Wednesday and About Elly (which won Farhadi the Silver Bear for best director at the 2009 Berlinale). By the time The Past premiered at Cannes in 2013, the world had caught up with Farhadi.

Farhadi is from Iran, a nation that exploded on to the global cinema scene in the 1990s. The largely concurrent rise of Abbas Kiarostami, Jafar Panahi, Samira and Mohsen Makhmalbaf, and Majid Majidi signalled a new kind of cinematic language: intimate, rough-hewn, lyrical. It didn’t matter that Kiarostami and Majidi had markedly different approaches—they were all grouped together under the broad banner of “Iranian cinema”, which was soon to become cinephile spinach, something you were supposed to appreciate whether or not you liked it.

If Farhadi stands apart from this group, it’s not just because he came to prominence in the 2000s but because his features didn’t fit the popular perception of what Iranian films are like. Intricately plotted, masterfully edited, his films pushed the family drama into the realm of the psychological thriller. His narratives are often constructed around an incident—a disappearance in About Elly, an altercation in A Separation—whose implications then ripple outwards in surprising ways. As Ratik Asokan, writing for Guernica, put it: “While conventional thrillers arrow towards their climax, Farhadi’s plots are widening gyres: they grow out, and often away from, a climactic event that occurs rather early on.”

In 2012, Asghar Farhadi submitted his 10 choices for Sight & Sound's best films of all time poll. His list is eclectic—the selections range from Take The Money And Run to Tokyo Story—and while there might be a danger in reading too much into it, two entries strike me as significant. Nearly all of Farhadi’s films involve multiple, competing perspectives of a single event, and Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon—the first title on his list—is the urtext for this sort of stuff. There’s also Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Three Colours: Red, a somewhat surprising inclusion until you think about how closely Farhadi’s films, with their fraught energy and moral complexity, resemble early Kieślowski films like Blind Chance and A Short Film About Killing (it would be fascinating if the Iranian, like the Polish master, takes a mid-career turn towards overt visual stylization).

Farhadi is shooting his next film with Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz in Spain; this will be his second feature outside Iran after The Past, which was made in France. Shooting in another country holds the attraction of a brief holiday from the Iranian censors, whom Farhadi once compared to the unpredictable British weather in an interview. Though his anti-Trump statements in the wake of the travel ban might have secured him the temporary goodwill of the authorities, Farhadi will be aware how quickly this attitude can change. In 2010, during the making of A Separation, he spoke in favour of Panahi (then, as now, banned from directing) and Mohsen Makhmalbaf (who left the country to escape official restrictions). The government immediately placed a ban on the film’s production, lifting it only once Farhadi apologized.

Farhadi has said he will not make political or “message” films. Whether or not this is a bit of misdirection aimed at the authorities, his films are, if not straightforwardly political, certainly immersed deeply in, and often critical of, Iranian society, particularly the position of women and the egos of men. We see this in The Salesman, where even a decent, broad-minded person like Emad can’t help making his wife’s assault about himself. Yet—and this is where the Kieślowski comparison comes in again—even as his films reflect and confront society, they have no moral absolutes; no relationship is simple, and no one, whatever their actions, is shown as undeserving of sympathy. It’s for this reason that Farhadi’s films are most deserving of the tag that’s applied carte blanche to all of Iranian cinema: humanist.

This was the first piece in a world cinema-focused series in Mint Lounge. 

Through a more equal lens

When she was starting out as a cinematographer in the early 1960s, Brianne Murphy, the first female director of photography (DoP) to work on a major American studio picture, found that the mispronunciation of her name had its advantages. “Producers would call up and ask to speak to ‘Brian’ Murphy,” she said years later in a speech. “I would lower my voice on the phone and get the job. When I showed up on the set, it was too late to fire me.” In 1973, she was admitted into the International Cinematographers Guild. In an interview to People magazine, she recalled how a guild member had told her: “You’ll get in over my dead body.” “Well,” she said, “he died.”

The same sexist attitudes exist in the Hindi film industry—and the same determination as well. There are only a handful of prominent women cinematographers working in mainstream cinema today: Priya Seth (Airlift); Neha Parti Matiyani (Waiting, Badrinath Ki Dulhania); Savita Singh (Hawaizaada); Keiko Nakahara (Mary Kom, Noor). But there are also more female DoPs out there than you think—a fact which the newly formed Indian Women Cinematographers’ Collective (IWCC) is trying to highlight.

The collective has its roots in a Facebook group started by cinematographer Fowzia Fathima. Fathima, whose credits include Revathy’s Mitr: My Friend, started the group in 2015 as a way for its members to share experiences and network with each other. She initially invited eight women DoPs to join; over time, as the members reached out to other professionals in the field, its membership went past 40, then 60. Earlier this year, Fathima read an article about a group of female cinematographers in the UK who had formed a collective called illuminatrix. “I posted it on the group and said, let’s escalate this,” she says over the phone. The IWCC came into being this month, on 8 March—International Women’s Day.

In the two-and-a-half weeks since its formation, the IWCC has amassed more than 70 members. Apart from maintaining a database of members and their work, the collective aims to act as a support group for those who are entering the field and are on the lookout for mentors or advice. One presumes that some of this advice will be geared towards responding to prejudice. “There is a perception that camerawork is a technical business and therefore not for women,” Deepti Gupta (Honeymoon Travels Pvt Ltd, Family Album), a member of both the initial Facebook group and the IWCC, says over the phone. “This is as ridiculous a perception as saying women can’t drive.”

As widespread as camerawork being too technical is the industry perception that movie cameras are too heavy for women. Fathima, Gupta and just about every female cameraperson has at some point or the other been urged to consider a field without such bulky equipment. It’s a measure of how deeply rooted this prejudice is that Gupta was asked the question in her entrance interview for the Film and Television Institute of India (she got in, as did Fathima the following year).

Female DoPs also have to contend with vague ideas about women-appropriate subjects. After she shot the music video for the 2004 Rabbi hit Bulla Ki Jaana, Gupta had ad film-makers come up, compliment her work and tell her they were waiting to work with her on the right project (“I would think, they’re making commercials, what’s right for a woman to shoot?”). This is why Priya Seth shooting Airlift with Akshay Kumar was a significant step forward; not only was it a project with a huge star (Gupta says top actors can just as easily veto a cinematographer as a director or producer can), but it also rubbished the widely held belief that women can’t shoot action.

Fathima hopes that, apart from being an “enormous networking opportunity”, the IWCC will provide new entrants to the field with persons to emulate: B.R. Vijayalakshmi, part of the collective and Asia’s first female cinematographer, would seem an ideal candidate. Photojournalists in India have had the long-standing example of Homai Vyarawalla to spur them on. If the IWCC can shine a similar light on women in cinematography, it would be a great start.

This piece appeared in Mint.

Phillauri: Review

Anshai Lal’s Phillauri is a lesson in committing wholeheartedly to your material. With a premise this farcical, the only way to succeed is if everyone from the director on down is convinced about what they’re doing and, at the same time, willing to look stupid. Then, if you’re lucky, somewhere along the line, because of this conviction, the viewer will suspend judgment and surrender, and the story will acquire a bit of resonance.

The dream sequence that kicks off Phillauri is almost Om-Dar-B-Dar-like in its accumulating strangeness. Kanan (Suraj Sharma) has visions of marrying a snake, finding himself in front of a wedding party without his clothes, seeing his fiancee trapped in a box and then drowning in it. Though the film settles down after this and operates in a broader, more commercially viable comic vein, the sequence shows that Lal, directing his first feature, doesn’t mind prodding audience expectations every once in a while.

Kanan, who’s flown in from Canada for his wedding, turns out to be manglik; he must therefore marry a tree before he can wed Anu (Mehreen Pirzada). He reluctantly agrees; the ceremony is conducted, after which the tree is chopped down. This frees a spirit that was trapped inside it, a development which might strike some as weird, but to me seems quite appropriate. In a world where it’s normal to marry a tree, who could possibly complain about the implausibility of a ghost?

After some inspired mugging from Sharma when his tree-wife floats into his life, another story begins to unfold. We learn that the spirit, Shashi (Anushka Sharma), was alive in pre-Independence India in Phillaur, Punjab (the same place where the tree stood), that she wrote and published poetry, and that she fell in love with a singer, Roop Lal “Phillauri” (Diljit Dosanjh). The narrative jumps back and forth in time – the transitions are jarring – as it contrasts the growing attachment of Shashi and Roop with Kanan’s doubts over his feelings towards Anu, whom he’s been dating since 10th grade, and who’s hopelessly head-over-heels for him.

While the visual effects look dated, the spirit Shashi is strikingly imagined – a shimmering vision that seems to be dissolving into gold dust at the edges. The character is beautifully realised too: Sharma’s performance is snappy, sardonic (but not cruel), dignified even in death. She looks like she’s lit from within (she’s lit beautifully from the outside by cinematographer Vishal Sinha). She finds an excellent foil in Suraj Sharma, who proves a deft physical comedian; someone ought to make a “Kanan panics” supercut. The supporting players are excellent as well: Dosanjh, with his low-key sex appeal; the wonderful Manav Vij as Shashi’s brother; the squeaky and touching Pirzada.

The film takes its chances with in its climactic scene: the metaphor will likely strike some as laboured, while others will find it apt and moving (I certainly did). Instead of discussing this, let me end with a mention of a short scene that occurs during one of the flashbacks. Shashi’s brother has just beaten her for daring to follow her heart – a scenario instantly familiar to any viewer of Hindi cinema. The scene that follows, though, isn’t one you get to see often. Shashi’s brother comforts her, brings her haldi doodh, talks with some vulnerability about raising her in the absence of their parents. He could have been a stock villain but instead, the film suggests that every relationship contains multitudes and everybody has their reasons. That a broad, mainstream comedy would take the effort to point this out is both unexpected and heartening.

This review appeared in Mint.

World cinema’s high priest

In 2012, Richard Peña stepped down as head of the New York Film Festival (NYFF). He had been the chairman of its selection committee for almost 25 years, taking over from Richard Roud in 1988, and championed key works by directors like Jia Zhangke and Olivier Assayas. Equally important was his long stint as programme director of New York’s Film Society of Lincoln Center. By organizing retrospectives and becoming an early promoter of directors largely unknown to US audiences—including heavyweights such as Abbas Kiarostami, Pedro Almodóvar and Hou Hsiao-hsien—Peña helped shape the critical discourse around cinema in the US and around the world.

Peña, who’s of Spanish and Puerto Rican descent, was in Mumbai last week for “A Panorama of Latin American Cinema”, a lecture series organized by the Dr Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum and Columbia Global Center. The talks he gave before each screening offered a glimpse of his formidable knowledge of, and palpable enthusiasm for, cinema. His evocation of Latin American culture, history and politics made for an uncommonly rich viewing experience; for instance, his clarification that the word “entranced” in Glauber Rocha’s Entranced Earth indicates violent convulsion, not a dream-like state, completely altered one’s understanding of the film.

We caught up with Peña between screenings and asked him about his curatorial career and the state of cinephilia.

You discussed how the idea of Third Cinema—a developing world cinema proposed as an alternative to the dominant US-Euro-centric cinema—gained traction in Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s. Do you think this is valid any more?
The whole idea of film industries has come under such a challenge because, with digital production, there are so many mini-cinemas out there. I think the idea in Latin America at the time, certainly in Brazil, was to create this very strident national cinema that would turn its back on Hollywood. No one actually believes that can happen, or that it’s even necessary nowadays, because now you can make your films without that.

I don’t think that Third Cinema ever really happened, nor will it happen. There was a moment when there was going to be this alternative cinema—the 1960s were a very heady time—but it didn’t pan out.

Of the many directors and national cinemas you promoted, were there any you were particularly proud to bring to wider notice?
I was very proud of my association with Abbas Kiarostami. When we took a chance on him, he was really unknown. Jia Zhangke, the great Chinese director, was another person we really brought along. Then there were the non-Asian directors—Olivier Assayas, Arnaud Desplechin, Catherine Breillat. I sometimes say it’s like playing the stock market: You buy stock, and you see if it grows.

Any stock that grew more than you’d have expected?
I was amazed how high and fast Iranian cinema grew. In 1991-92, when we began to show it, it was really unknown—no one had any idea Iran made movies, let alone that they were very good. And then, by 1997, there were five Iranian films that were released commercially in New York City. That year at NYFF, we sold out the Iranian screenings very quickly. Seeing that happen was very gratifying.

Has the nature of cinephilia changed in the last few years, from being something you share with other people to something you acquire on your own?
I think it has. Jonathan Rosenbaum and others have written about this. Earlier, people came together to see films because they wanted to see what the films were about. Now, there’s a certain kind of cinephilia that’s more like collecting—people don’t have a real commitment to what they’re seeing. “I’ve seen 88 of the 115 Jess Franco movies”—so, who cares? But some people care a lot.

Bhau Daji Lad Museum is one of the few places in Mumbai that hosts discussion-led screenings. There’s no dedicated repertory house in the city. Do many of these still exist in the US?
Not any more. Most of the action has been taken over by non-profits like the Lincoln Center, Brooklyn Academy of Music and Film Forum, and by home video. There used to be dozens of houses in New York. Boston, where I lived, had a great repertory scene; now there’s only one—The Brattle Theatre.

As you alluded, I think we’re going through a transition from collective viewing to individual viewing. I don’t think that’s a good development. There was something in the nature of cinema that created a collectivity, and I think that was a really interesting and important part of the cinematic experience.

Are there any new national cinemas you’re watching keenly?
There hasn’t been a national cinema that’s really risen for me in the last few years. I guess I was lucky to have seen the Iranians, the new Argentine cinema, South Korea. Israel has some wonderful film-makers, so does Palestine. But I don’t think there has been another meteor.

Latin America continues to be good. After about 1975-76, it became less interesting for me. Then, around 2000, a wave of films started coming from Argentina, Mexico, Peru, Colombia, Chile. Curiously, Brazil hasn’t been part of this wave, maybe because television is so strong there.

This interview appeared in Mint Lounge.

Trapped: Review

Trapped begins with a love story. We see Shaurya (Rajkummar Rao), after a few hesitant phone conversations, gather up the courage to ask his office colleague Noorie (Geetanjali Thapa) to dinner. She tells him she’s to be married soon, but they keep meeting anyway, grow closer, fall in love. Soon, he’s looking for an affordable apartment for them to live in. All this could be its own separate film; instead, it takes up about 10 minutes of screentime.

Why does the director, Vikramaditya Motwane, show their romance play out in its entirety instead of dropping us in at the end? I suspect it’s to give the viewer the sensation of time condensed. The rest of the film is concerned with time expanded, magnified. It’s an irony built into the film’s structure: the moments Shaurya would want to savour are collapsed into a neat highlights package, while the ones he’d like to forget seem to stretch until the passage of time is rendered almost meaningless.

The bridge between these two extremes is the scene where Shaurya first sees the apartment he’ll later find himself locked in. As he wanders through the rooms, the camera follows him in a long unbroken shot. This “real-time” nature of the scene is crucial: it serves as a subliminal warning to the viewer that the film’s attitude towards time and its importance is about to change.

Next morning, Shaurya, attempting to leave in a hurry, manages to lock himself in the flat with the key in the door on the outside. Almost immediately, things start to go wrong. The electricity supply fails, his phone runs out of battery. Soon, he runs out of food and water. The flat is in an unpopulated building, so there’s no one to hear his increasingly desperate cries for help.

There’s a metaphor here, ripe for the picking – that people in Mumbai are islands unto themselves. I prefer this one instead: Shaurya represents the resourcefulness of Mumbai. Once he realises the predicament he’s in, Shaurya sets about making the best use of everything he can find in the apartment, be it cardboard, toothpaste or pigeon. We know very little about Shaurya when the film begins, not even whether he’s been living in the city for long. It doesn’t matter – even if he isn’t from the city, there’s an adaptiveness to him that’s pure Mumbai. When I first saw the film I thought it was a fitting Mumbai story because of Shaurya’s isolation in an urban jungle; on a second viewing, though, I realized that it was his response to a hopeless situation that was typical of the city.

Survival thrillers don’t often take place indoors; confined spaces are usually the setting for horror films or psychological thrillers (like the 2016 Radhika Apte-starrer Phobia). Yet, Trapped is written (by Amit Joshi and Hardik Mehta) in such a way that the essential elements remain the same. Shaurya is starving, parched, cut off from humanity. He may as well be in the wild. Indeed, as the film progresses, his surroundings start to take on aspects of the outdoors: fire and water make dramatic appearances, and he begins to wear a headband and use a slingshot like some sort of emaciated Rambo.

Trapped is a 180-degree turn from the fevered romanticism of Lootera, but Motwane’s control over narrative doesn’t seem at all affected by the change of genre. In Rao, he has exactly the right actor for this kind of film: relatable enough to pass for an urban everyman, and talented enough to keep one’s attention for 105 minutes. Siddharth Diwan’s cinematography and Nitin Baid’s editing are precise and unshowy; far more prominent is the superb aural mix, with Anish John’s sound design blending into Alokananda Dasgupta’s score. Time and again, sound becomes soundtrack: the groan of an elevator turned into foreboding notes, the clank of a metal pan into nightmarish percussion.

None of this would matter if Shaurya’s struggle wasn’t moving – if we didn’t see some of ourselves in his determination in the face of insurmountable odds. “From ourselves comes only that which we drag forth from the obscurity which lies within us, that which to others is unknown,” wrote Marcel Proust. The book, fittingly, was Time Regained.

This review appeared in Mint.

Badrinath Ki Dulhania: Review

Stalking is so common in Hindi cinema that our filmmakers have developed a tacit grammar of good stalking versus bad. The former usually takes place in the film’s first hour, is performed with non-threatening charm by the male lead, and is borne by the female lead with exasperated good humour. The latter occurs after the interval, and is usually a prelude to the male lead discovering the error of his ways.

Badrinath Ki Dulhania has good and bad stalking, and both are presented as part of the mating ritual. Jhansi boy Badri (Varun Dhawan) blithely pursues the uninterested but amused Vaidehi (Alia Bhatt) through the streets of Kota. She says “no”, he hears “try harder”—a sequence of events that’s stubbornly lodged in the DNA of Hindi cinema. If the pass the film grants him is morally dodgy, the sequence that arrives a little after the interval is indefensible. Badri, along with a friend, abducts Vaidehi off the streets at night, throws her in the trunk of his car, and drives off. You’d think this would wreck their relationship forever—not to mention result in some sort of legal action—but no. Vaidehi’s mad for 20 seconds, and then the focus shifts to Badri’s hurt feelings.

Like Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhania (2014), to which this is a sequel in spirit, Shashank Khaitan’s film examines how the emotional reverberations of failed and thwarted marriages are felt by the entire family over time. Badri’s brother was prevented by his class-obsessed conservative cliché of a father from marrying the woman he loves. Vaidehi was conned by her fiancée, resulting in a loss of money and, perhaps more crucially, agency; when Badri proposes marriage as part of a pretty package that’ll see her sister married as well, and her father saved of a dowry payment he can’t afford, she agrees, even though her mind is set on becoming an air hostess.

Badrinath Ki Dulhania is a tricky film to unequivocally praise or damn. There’s a frankness to its discussions of dowry and the diminishing of women’s rights after marriage that’s heartening to see in a mainstream film. On the other hand, there isn’t enough dramatic heft in it to justify the kidnapping-as-plot-device sequence or the threats of honour killing that issue from Badri’s father. Khaitan would probably argue that this is how things are in real life in Uttar Pradesh (and pretty much everywhere else in India). Yet, if it were real life we were talking about, Vaidehi probably wouldn’t have emerged from that trunk alive.

Khaitan’s writing, with its UP inflections and inexact translations (“turbulence” becomes “maansik santulan”), is quick and funny, words that might also be used to describe Dhawan and Bhatt and Sahil Vaid as Badri’s best friend. The first hour has some of the fast-talking charm of screwball comedy, but when the film swaps Jhansi for Singapore, the writing loses its specificity and bite. The first half has the tang of real life; the second, the sterile good cheer of a film that’s literally on foreign ground. Frankfinn is promoted throughout the film, though the ending is sponsored by Good Intentions.

This review appeared in Mint.

In his lonely room

It’s tempting, if not always advisable, to use the details of someone’s room to speculate on their current state in life. In Vikramaditya Motwane’s room in the Phantom Films’ office in Mumbai, the bookshelf mostly has comics and graphic novels—Grant Morrison’s 18 Days, a Batman anthology, Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s The Push Man And Other Stories—which might lead one to believe that the writer-director is busy researching Chakra: The Invincible, his forthcoming collaboration with Stan Lee’s POW! Entertainment. An even bigger logical leap might be in forging a connection between the number of posters with “lone wolf” protagonists (Yojimbo, John Wick, Kill Bill) in the room and the fact that his next film, Bhavesh Joshi, is about a vigilante.

The truth is that it’s unlikely either Chakra, still in the initial stages of planning, or Bhavesh Joshi, only 60% of which has been shot, is uppermost in Motwane’s mind right now. His third feature, Trapped, releases on 17 March, which means that he’s busy with interviews, Reddit AMAs and photo-ops. In the film, which closed the Mumbai International Film Festival last year, a white-collar employee, Shaurya (played by Rajkummar Rao), inadvertently locks himself inside his new flat in an unoccupied Mumbai high-rise. Murphy’s Law kicks into high gear, and what starts out as an inconvenience soon begins to resemble a nightmare.

Trapped originated not with Motwane but with a first-time screenwriter named Amit Joshi. Joshi, who left his job with a telecommunications infrastructure company to write full-time, says the idea for Trapped came from a desire to write something that wasn’t buried in layers. “It should be something everyone can get—one person, one location,” he says over the phone. Life imitated art-in-progress; Joshi found his scenario when he was auto-locked inside his Goregaon flat in Mumbai for half an hour. After fleshing out the idea, he visited the Phantom Films office, managed to catch Motwane at the gate and told him he had an idea for a film.

Joshi may not have realized it then, but his timing was perfect. AK Vs SK, a project Motwane had been working on with Shahid Kapoor, had fallen through. So had Bhavesh Joshi—twice. Trapped presented an opportunity to work on something that didn’t have the variables of big star and budget. It also meant that, for the first time since Lootera in 2013, Motwane could get some proper directing done. “I’d been prepping and prepping for so long,” he says. “At that point, I really just wanted to shoot a film.”

Motwane liked Joshi’s idea, and asked him to send a draft. This arrived in April 2015. Motwane then introduced Jain to Hardik Mehta, an assistant director on Lootera. Mehta and Joshi worked for the next few months, brainstorming over games of table tennis, sharpening the original idea, with Motwane turning up every now and then to “stir the pot”. In a few months, Joshi’s 130-page draft had been whittled down to 40 pages.

Motwane and his cinematographer, the versatile Siddharth Diwan, decided, reluctantly at first, to use the Red Epic Dragon camera, convenient for shooting in enclosed spaces. They ended up loving it and are now also using a Red for the expanded canvas of Bhavesh Joshi. The shoot was wrapped up in around 20 days (Motwane’s first feature, Udaan, took 42). Key elements were added in post-production, including an atmospheric score by Alokananda Dasgupta and complementary sound design by Anish John. Musical motifs were used “to get monotony into the film without making it seem monotonous”. You can hear two such sounds in the trailer—a metallic clanking and a tapping—which were inspired by the sound of rhythmic breathing in The Revenant.

Trapped falls under a subgenre rarely attempted in Hindi cinema: the survival film. It isn’t a typical example either; most survival films take place outdoors, with protagonists battling nature, the elements or other people. With most of its action unfolding in a single location, Trapped is a subgenre within a subgenre: the survival film in an enclosed space. Motwane mentions the Ryan Reynolds film Buried as an extreme example; there’s also 127 Hours (though the audience gets frequent relief from the cave) and psychological thrillers like Repulsion and Panic Room.

Watching Trapped at the Mumbai Film Festival, along with the sort of adoring crowd that special screenings in the city usually attract, I was struck by how different it was from the swooningly romantic Lootera; just as when I first saw Lootera it felt like a huge departure from the grainy, intimate Udaan (influenced, Motwane says, by Ken Loach’s Sweet Sixteen and Kes). This willingness to switch between genres and styles, he says, is because “I’m willing to fail, my producers are willing to fail, my crew is willing to fail.”

Though Motwane’s films are certainly dissimilar on the surface, they do have one thing in common. They all have individuals who are trapped: Rohan in a house with an abusive father in Udaan; Pakhi and Varun by their life choices and social stations in Lootera; and Shaurya, quite literally. “I like the films that gain awareness at the end—a sort of breakout moment,” Motwane says. “I feel this stems from the fact that my heroes are always a bit reluctant till the end, which is when they get the strength to do what they should have all along.” Put another way, it’s the classic superhero narrative, which should come in handy when he’s directing Chakra.

This piece appeared in Mint. 

Is ‘Moonlight’ the unlikeliest Best Picture winner ever?

The circumstances of Moonlight’s victory at the Oscars, with La La Land incorrectly announced as the winner first, were both utterly bizarre and weirdly appropriate. If there’s never been high drama quite like this at the Academy Awards before, there’s never been a Best Picture winner like Moonlight either. Small, poetic films like Barry Jenkins’s don’t win Oscars. They show at Sundance or Tribeca or Telluride, turn up on year-end critic lists and in pieces titled “10 films the Oscars ignored”.

Never mind winning, it’s a minor miracle that Moonlight was even nominated for Best Picture. Academy voters aren’t known for their adventurousness, and even when they do push more challenging works, there’s usually something to hold on to: a star in a supporting role, a famous director. Many of the actors in Moonlight were unknown before the film’s release, and Naomie Harris and Mahershala Ali were, at best, minor stars. Few had heard of Jenkins or his first film, Medicine for Melancholy, either. The biggest player on the team was producer Dede Gardner, president of Plan B Entertainment, which co-produced along with A24 and Pastel Productions. With Moonlight, Gardner became the first female producer with two Best Picture Oscars (12 Years a Slave won in 2014).

There are other reasons why Moonlight’s triumph is a thoroughly unlikely one. Oscar-nominated films about black lives have usually revolved around slavery (Amistad, 12 Years a Slave), civil rights (Selma) or race relations (Driving Miss Daisy, The Help). Moonlight, in its broadest sense an exploration of gay black lives, may sound like an “issue film”, but the treatment is less stirring and more dreamy than you’d expect. There is very little dialogue. The granular, hypnotic visual style recalls the films of Wong Kar Wai, just as its intimate take on black lives in America points to Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep and its tri-part structure to Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Three Times. At the risk of making Moonlight sound forbidding or inaccessible (neither of which it is), this might just be the first time an art film has won Best Picture.

After the shock of Envelopegate had faded, I looked at the list of Best Picture winners to see if there was any precedent for awarding something so utterly outside the mainstream. There were a couple of long shots. The war film All Quiet on the Western Front, winner in 1931, had no big stars – Lew Ayres became known after its release—and a grittiness that was novel for its time (The Hurt Locker achieved something similar in 2010). Marty, winner in 1956, starred Ernest Borgnine, who normally played the heavy, and placed an uncommon emphasis on the ordinariness of its characters. Slumdog Millionaire, winner in 2009, had actors who were largely unfamiliar to Western audiences. Yet, there are reasons why each of these would have appealed to Academy voters. Moonlight obviously did too, but why this subtle, intimate film clicked with an institution that favours the flashy, the well-meaning and the prestigious isn’t immediately apparent.

What Moonlight’s victory has done—if only until next year—is change our conception about what can and what cannot win an Oscar. Passing over a (very worthy) crowd-pleaser in favour of an unconventional tone poem is a fascinating signal of intent from the Academy. It may end up awarding a stuffy British costume drama next year, but for the moment, there’s reason to be optimistic.

This piece appeared in Mint. 

Une Femme Coquette

A new Godard title is cause enough for excitement, so you can imagine the seismic force with which the news of a new old Godard hit cinephiles across the globe last week. In 1955, a 24-year-old Jean-Luc Godard directed his second short and his first stab at fiction, Une Femme Coquette. The 9-minute film, never distributed and screened only a handful of times, turned up on Australian critic and director David Heslin’s YouTube channel on 15 February.



Une Femme Coquette had earlier been the subject of a 2014 AV Club piece by Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, which disclosed that a 16mm print—possibly the only one—was being stored in an unspecified national film archive in Europe. Whether this is the source for the uploaded film isn’t known; Vishnevetsky had written that the owner of the print would only loan it out with Godard’s permission.

For this 9-minute film—made five years before he burst on to the scene with Breathless—Godard adapted Guy Maupassant’s short story "Le Signe" (The Signal). A woman named Agnes writes a letter to a friend about her brush with infidelity, which we then see play out. On her way home, she notices a prostitute looking down from her window and enticing passers-by with her gaze. She decides to test the power of her own flirtatiousness on a stranger, with unexpected consequences.

Une Femme Coquette is the work of a beginner—a promising one. You can see the future Godard in the unadorned location shooting (the setting is Île Rousseau, Geneva), in the beautiful tracking shot on the bridge, in the unexpected poetry of the line, “They were lost in my soul like clouds drifting apart by the wind on a greyish background where the sun was heading”, and, more than anything, in the playfulness of it all. You can also literally see Godard around the 2-minute mark, wearing his trademark shades.

In his 2008 book Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life Of Jean-Luc Godard, Richard Brody praised the film’s theme of imitation becoming reality, of “trying to live what one has watched”. “Godard’s first fictional film is about the perilous path that he was taking as he sought to enter the cinema,” he wrote, “and it anticipates the moral dangers that awaited him there.” Now, at least until the film remains online, you can see Godard’s first steps down this path whose trajectory he would soon be shaping.

This piece appeared in Mint Lounge. Since its writing, David Heslin's account has suspended by YouTube. citing third-party copyright violations.

Oscars 2017: Real life matters

There’s a game Oscar nerds like to play, where you zero in on a certain category in a certain year and say, “How on earth did they pick a winner?” Mostly, it’s the sexier categories—Best Picture, Director, Actor—that are remembered; epic years like 1975, when One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest fended off Dog Day Afternoon, Jaws, Nashville and Barry Lyndon. Yet, just as often, the less glamorous sections provide heady matchups. Cinematography is always a good bet, with its revolving door of Emmanuel Lubezki, Roger Deakins, Robert Richardson and Janusz Kamiński. So is Original Screenplay—imagine how it must have felt to be a Mel Brooks fan in 1969, when he triumphed over Stanley Kubrick, Gillo Pontecorvo, John Cassavetes and Peter Ustinov.

This year, the golden section is Documentary Feature. Non-fiction is better equipped than fiction film to respond to events on the ground, and the simmering anger that exploded into the Black Lives Matter movement in recent times has found a cinematic response in three films that explore the subject of race in America: 13th, I Am Not Your Negro and O.J.: Made In America. Equally of the moment is Fire At Sea, which looks at the global refugee crisis through the lives of residents on the island of Lampedusa. The selection is rounded off by Life, Animated, the only safe pick of the bunch.

No documentary has ever been nominated for Best Picture. This would have been a great year to change that. 13th is more politically and stylistically potent than Hidden Figures or Fences, and the merits of Fire At Sea far outweigh those of Lion.

Race, America and non-fiction
The Netflix-produced 13th tells the history of black America through the prism of incarceration. Ava DuVernay, who has directed both documentaries and features (including the Oscar-nominated Selma) in the past, traces a direct line from slavery and Jim Crow to the war on drugs and the exceptionally high rates of black incarceration. The film packs a miniseries worth of information into 100 urgent minutes. Arguments by politicians and activists, from former Black Panther Angela Davis to former House of Representatives speaker Newt Gingrich, are interspersed with video footage as the film touches on everything from D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film, The Birth Of A Nation, to Bill Clinton’s controversial 1994 Federal Crime Bill and finds in each case evidence of discrimination against people of colour.

DuVernay isn’t content to let the material speak for itself—she fashions it in such a way that its import is inescapable. The camera is kept in motion during the interviews, which lends a sense of dynamism to a stock documentary situation. One devastating bit of editing has Donald Trump’s voice cheering the removal of a protester from his campaign rally, intercut with black and white images of racial violence. When Trump says, “I’d like to punch him in the face,” DuVernay shows us old newsreel footage of a black man being punched by a white one. We hear, “In the good old days…they’d be carried out on a stretcher”, and we see a black woman being stretcher-ed away.

Like 13th, I Am Not Your Negro looks to the past to try and understand present-day racial discrimination. Directed by Haitian film-maker Raoul Peck and based on James Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript Remember This House, it marries the words of the late novelist and critic (read by Samuel L. Jackson) with documentary footage and interviews. Baldwin was one of the great essayists of his time, and a complex figure: gay and black in an age when neither was an easy thing to be.

In a 1961 collection of essays titled Nobody Knows My Name, Baldwin wrote that one of his aims was “to prevent myself from becoming merely a Negro; or, even merely a Negro writer”. An unexpected echo of this is found in Ezra Edelman’s O.J.: Made In America, a nearly 8-hour documentary made for ESPN’s 30 For 30 series. In the 1960s, sociologist Harry Edwards approached O.J. Simpson, the biggest name in college football in the US, to join his Olympic Project for Human Rights. In the film, Edwards recalls that when he told Simpson he was trying to get black athletes to play a role in the civil rights movement, the reply he received was, “I’m not black, I’m O.J.”

O.J.: Made In America, though commissioned by ESPN, is neither a standard sports film nor another revisiting of the O.J. murder trial. Instead, Edelman lays out, in great detail, the roots of the fractious relations between the black community and law enforcement in Los Angeles, and especially the allegations of racism that have dogged the LA police for decades. The murder—of Simpson’s ex-wife Nicole Brown—and the subsequent trial, in which Simpson was found not guilty, doesn’t figure in the first 3 hours.

Breaking the rules
Edelman’s reconstruction of racial fault lines is painstaking and powerful, but the film’s selection for the Oscars does raise some uncomfortable questions about nomination criteria. O.J.: Made In America clearly isn’t to be consumed in one sitting; it’s a five-part series, not an 8-hour film. Edelman admitted on the WTF With Marc Maron podcast that the theatrical release was engineered in order to be eligible for the Oscars. By buying into this, the Academy may have set an awkward precedent. Could a limited fiction series—like, say, The Night Of—cobble together its episodes, release it in theatres, and be considered for Best Picture?

These films by DuVernay, Peck and Edelman have more than a broad subject in common—they’re also stylistically similar, using archival footage and interviews to construct arguments that are placed squarely in front of the viewer. On the other hand, you could get halfway through Gianfranco Rosi’s Fire At Sea and still not be able to say exactly what the film is about. This is a purely observational documentary—no narration, no interviews, no handholding. Much of it is simply an impassive camera observing the citizens of Lampedusa go about their lives: a boy honing his slingshot skills, a grandmother phoning in and requesting ballads from a radio jockey.

Rosi, who also shot the film, interrupts the tranquillity of these scenes with chaotic, wrenching scenes of refugees arriving from Africa and the Middle East, packed in small boats. There are no explicit parallels drawn, just the constant, subtle juxtaposition of the easy-going lives of the locals (in particular a talkative, engaging boy called Samuel) and the migrants who risk theirs to reach what they hope will be a safe haven. Even the big dramatic scenes—like when a group of refugees join in a mournful song that tells the story of their cross-continental journey—seem to arise, unplanned and unforced, from the material.

Perhaps the Academy voters felt that five perfectly serious films would be too much to handle. The final entry in the category is a disappointing one. In Roger Ross Williams’ Life, Animated, a young man with autism learns to communicate with the world through lines and characters from animated Disney movies. With its Reader’s Digest-ready story and occasional hand-drawn sequences, the film is heartfelt but unremarkable—a feel-good candidate in a sobering group.

If you look at the official list from which the five films were selected, it becomes clear what an outstanding year for documentary 2016 was. It’s hard not to feel that the Academy missed a trick by selecting Life, Animated over the genuinely innovative animation of Tower, which uses rotoscopy to tell the story of a famous 1966 shooting at the University of Texas. Or they might have made it an all-political year by nominating Nanfu Wang’s Hooligan Sparrow or Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg’s Weiner. It’s especially difficult to believe that Cameraperson, which assembles footage shot by cinematographer Kirsten Johnson for other directors’ films over 25 years, was passed over: This subtly radical film has an un-didactic approach, which would have made it a perfect partner for Fire At Sea.

At the Berlinale last year, Rosi’s film won the festival’s top prize, the Golden Bear. It might surprise those used to the segregation of fiction and documentary that non-fiction films compete for top prizes at the world’s leading film festivals (and occasionally win, like Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 at Cannes in 2004, or Rosi’s Sacro GRA at the Venice Film Festival in 2013). This year in particular demonstrates that there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be part of the Best Picture race at the Oscars as well.

This piece appeared in Mint Lounge.

Rangoon: Review

For someone with a tendency to start his films with scenes that reveal their import slowly, Vishal Bhardwaj is all business in the opening moments of Rangoon. The opening voice-over tells us exactly where we are: 1943, with India chafing under British rule, and the Indian National Army making plans to attack via Burma. Within 15 minutes, we’re introduced to the major players: film star Julia (Kangana Ranaut), her mentor and lover, Rustom Billimoria (Saif Ali Khan), and a soldier in the Indian army, Nawab Malik (Shahid Kapoor).

Events are set in motion by what is either a brilliant screenwriter’s conceit or an impressive bit of research on the part of Bhardwaj and Matthew Robbins (to whom the story is credited): the Hindustani-speaking British major general David Harding (Richard McCabe) suggests to Rustom that Julia travel to Burma to entertain the troops. Did Indian movie stars of the time perform in war zones? There’s no reason why this couldn’t have happened; performers were, after all, routinely brought down from England by ENSA (Entertainments National Service Association). At any rate, it’s what sends the reluctant Julia, who’s madly in love with the married Rustom, on her way to Rangoon, with Malik as her military escort.

It took a while before it truly felt like I was watching a Bhardwaj film. There were hints along the way, like the sound of the train blending into the musical number "Tippa". There’s also the short scene—almost a throwaway—in which Harding, wearing a white kurta, is playing a harmonium and singing in Hindi, refusing to stop even when an officer tries to get his attention. Harding is a fascinating antagonist—an insidious version of the Urdu-speaking British officer played by Tom Alter in Shatranj Ke Khiladi. Harding’s comfort with all things Indian carries the implicit suggestion that this is the sort of Englishman who’s unlikely to leave the country unless compelled to.

Then, a little before the interval, comes a scene that’s unmistakably, indelibly Bhardwaj. There’s alcohol involved, and violence, and lust, all mixed up with poetry and mud and fire. Ranaut, who’s been broadly comic until this point, flicks that switch of poetic doom that only she seems to be able to access at will. Kapoor capitulates beautifully; if he appears to fall under her spell too soon, ask yourself how long you’d hold out if Ranaut turned the full blast of her charm on you.

As one might expect, there are a number of references to the cinema of the 1940s. Julia, with her whip and mask, her knife-throwing and horseback riding, is obviously modelled on action star Fearless Nadia. The song "Ek Dooni Do" is a neat tribute to Cuckoo, another star of the era. Devika Rani and Himanshu Rai—the star couple of their day—are mentioned in passing. Rangoon also has more than a touch of Casablanca. There’s a woman caught between an idealist and a cynic as World War II rages on. Rustom dresses as Bogart did in the 1942 film, in a white suit and black bowtie. He calls Julia “kiddo”. There’s even a scene at a train station, though this time the aggrieved party is the woman.

Perhaps made wary by the failure of Bombay Velvet, Rangoon doesn’t aim for authenticity at the cost of alienating its audience. The music, by Bhardwaj, with lyrics by Gulzar, has old-timey touches but makes no real effort to sound as if it’s from that era. Julia’s stage shows have the remorseless athleticism of modern Bollywood choreography. Pankaj Kumar’s cinematography has a hard digital look that feels slightly incongruous with a period film, though it lends the war scenes a gritty sordidness.

As the influence of Inglourious Basterds becomes more pronounced—there’s an “Au revoir, Shoshanna” moment, and a "Cat People (Putting Out Fire)" one as well—Rangoon comes unstuck. Harding teeters on the verge of caricature, then tips over; when Rustom says “This is not right,” he responds, “I’m white. I’m always right.” Khan’s Billimoria is a disappointingly shallow characterisation of what should have been a great part: an imperial stooge, a former-star-turned-impresario and a one-armed jilted lover. In one sequence, Julia transforms into the kind of action hero she plays on screen. The veil separating movie fantasy and movie reality is whisked away, like a magic trick that’s missing the payoff.

Rangoon is a rollicking, messy, somewhat frustrating film—it neither coheres, nor does it let you drift away. Ranaut, with that marvellous hurt look, gives the vain, wilful Julia agency and depth; the only performance to match hers is Saharsh Kumar Shukla’s soulful turn as Julia’s spot boy and confidant, Zulfi. I was unmoved by the film’s showy climax, but I enjoyed the subversion of an earlier scene in which the national anthem is sung. This is the third time in a few months the national anthem has played in a film, but here, it’s the INA version that’s sung: the same familiar tune, but with alternate lyrics. Trust Bhardwaj to locate patriotism not in the national army but in the rebels.

This review appeared in Mint.

John Wick: Chapter 2: Review

And they didn’t even kill his dog this time.

John Wick: Chapter 2 opens with a scene from a Buster Keaton film projected onto a building in New York City. It lasts just a few seconds before shots are fired and we’re whisked into the film’s first chase sequence, but the tribute is fitting. This may as well be a silent film for all the import words have here – assassin Wick takes several seconds and multiple syllables to grind out lines like “Yes.” One of his rivals, played by Ruby Rose, is mute; when another, Cassian (Common), says, “Consider this a professional courtesy”, it’s as if he were offering a line of verse.

Remember when Wick fell in love and left the whole assassin scene behind? Turns out his safe retirement was made possible through a blood debt – one he’s obliged to honour by the rules of whatever shadowy organization hotel owner Winston (Ian McShane) heads and Wick’s a member of. The dapper Santino (Riccardo Scamarcio) comes to collect: he wants Wick to go to Rome and kill his sister, the head of the mafia. This sets up the film’s best joke; when Wick arrives in Italy, Julius (Franco Nero) inquires if he’s “working”. When Wick assents, Julius asks, “Is it the Pope?”

John Wick 2 doesn’t have the luxury of offering viewers quite so flimsy a storyline as the first film, but it tries its damnedest. The pleasure – and this is a deeply pleasurable film if you can wince your way through moments the extreme violence – isn’t in where the plot takes us but in the ingenuity of the settings where Reeves must do battle, the eccentricities of his opponents, the almost satirical fetishizing of weaponry, and the brutal efficiency of the action choreography. Director Chad Stahelski, who co-helmed the first film with David Leitch, is a former stuntman, which might explain his knack for presenting, coherently, bodies in violent motion.

The success of the first film has afforded Stahelski an expanded budget, which allows him to stage a long sequence in a dimly lit underground passageway underneath an old building hosting a party in Rome, and another in a dazzling hall of mirrors in a New York museum. Cinematographer Dan Laustsen (Crimson Peak) shoots the latter scene, with its echoes of Orson Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai, like he’s trying to outdo Roger Deakins’ work in the Shanghai passage of Skyfall. And he does.

It’s strangely heartening to see the actors who made it out of the first film alive – McShane, John Leguizamo, Lance Reddick, Thomas Sadoski – turn up for cameos or slightly longer parts here. Rose continues the mini-tradition of lethal female assassins in John Wick films, and Scamarcio chews scenery very entertainingly as the petulant crime boss. Idiosyncratic performers turn up for a scene or two: Peter Stormare; Franco Nero, the original Django. I wouldn’t want to ruin one of the film’s better surprises; suffice to say there’s a meeting of two actors that should bring a fond smile to anyone who grew up watching films in the ‘90s.

Rather embarrassingly, for this is a deeply silly film, I had a fond smile on my face through long stretches of John Wick 2. I could have done without so many headshots, and I’m not sure seeing Wick actually kill men with a pencil is as much fun as hearing about it. But as far as precisely executed action is concerned, you won’t find much better coming out of Hollywood today. And then there’s Reeves, he of the halting delivery and one of the most classically beautiful countenances in cinema (in one scene, he’s enclosed within a gilt frame). To use a title usually reserved for Buster Keaton, he’s the Great Stone Face of his generation.

This review appeared in Mint. 

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Jolly LLB 2: Review

It’s not often that one gets the opportunity to sit back and enjoy a Saurabh Shukla performance. The quintessential supporting actor, his roles are, all too often, supporting actor length. Not that he can’t do great things with 10 minutes of screen time— Hazaron Khwaishein Aisi is testament to this—but when he gets some width, Shukla is a joy to watch. Subhash Kapoor must recognize this; he gave Shukla one of his most fleshed-out roles, that of Judge Sundar Lal Tripathi, in 2013’s Jolly LLB. Shukla responded by stealing the film from under Arshad Warsi and Boman Irani’s noses.

Shukla is also the only actor carried forward to the somewhat-sequel, Kapoor’s Jolly LLB 2. Warsi has had to make to way for Akshay Kumar; “Jolly” now refers Jagdishwar Mishra, not Jagdish Tyagi. The premise, though, is much the same: unrefined newbie lawyer goes up against smooth-talking big city player, grows a conscience, takes on the system. This Jolly is tasked with proving the innocence of Iqbal (Manav Kaul), falsely branded a terrorist and shot by the police in a fake encounter. Arguing for the defence is Pramod Mathur (Annu Kapoor), a Lucknow attorney who’s friends with the inspector who killed Iqbal.

Some of the underdog scrappiness of the 2013 film survives, but casting Kumar in the lead means an abundance of what, for lack of a better word, one might call “hero moments”. When Warsi in the earlier film threatened to slap someone silly in court, it was both funny and revealing of a streetwise character up against something much larger than himself. When Kumar threatens to do the same (thrice), it’s what the audience already expects from him. This is not to say that Kumar isn’t an effective Jolly—there’s a comforting solidity to his performance—but when you bring in a huge star to replace a minor one, there are beats that have to be hit.

Jolly LLB 2 has a busy plot, but the film’s real triumph is the wealth of detail that informs the scenes. Kapoor, who’s also written the film, has a good eye and ear for the blackly comic and the mildly surreal: a suhaag raat scene with the groom in handcuffs, a cricket match between burqa- and sari-clad teams. His visual style is unobtrusive but notice how the background is forever busy, whether it’s policemen chuckling or Jolly’s wife, Pushpa (Huma Qureshi), wiping their kid’s nose. Kapoor also has a knack for efficiently sketched side characters. Kumar, Annu Kapoor (very droll) and Shukla get the best lines, but Kaul as Iqbal, Rajiv Gupta as Jolly’s sidekick, and Inaamulhaq (in a late cameo) all have brief, memorable turns.

Not for the first time, I found myself wishing Kapoor would find the women in his films something to do. Pushpa is introduced as the kind of person who throws a fit because her hardworking husband won’t buy her a Gucci dress, and ends up as a cheerleader for him. Iqbal’s wife, Hina, played with some fire by Sayani Gupta, is little more than a device to help Jolly access his conscience. There’s also a disconcerting amount of screen-time dedicated to teary lectures about patriotism and duty. This has become somewhat of an Akshay Kumar staple in recent years: a dispiriting sidebar to his evolution as an actor.

There’s little doubt about what kind of film Jolly LLB 2 wants to be: broad, accessible and successful. Sometimes, this results in scenes more perplexing than stirring, like when Mathur stages a sit-down in court and an exasperated Tripathi joins him in opposition. Yet, even in the more bombastic moments, there’s often poignancy to be found. Towards the end, the judge gives a speech about the virtues of the Indian legal system. As he speaks, the camera pans back slowly to reveal stacks and stacks of case files—justice delayed, perhaps denied.

This review appeared in Mint.

The dying of the light


In December 2015, critic and film-maker Khalid Mohamed wrote a short piece for The Quint on the steady decline of DVD rentals in Mumbai. He mentioned the closing down of the long-running Shemaroo library on Napean Sea Road in 2014, and of the Teenage Library in Colaba, and the general lack of “romance” associated with DVDs in India. “Only a scant few dial-a-DVD outlets plod on,” Mohamed wrote. “But for how long?”

Ask the remaining outlets and they’ll tell you, not long at all. Everyone seems to agree that streaming services and downloads—legal and otherwise—have effectively ended the rental business. “On Hotstar and Netflix, you can get the films almost for free,” B.K. Ramesha of Movie Empire says. “Even the downloaded prints have become better. I don’t think DVDs have any future beyond two-three years.” “It won’t be that long,” the store’s other manager, Izaz Sheikh, chimes in. “This will be the last year.” As if to confirm this, during the 40-odd minutes I spent at Movie Empire, the phone rang only once, and there were no walk-ins.

Movie Empire was started in 2003 by Arun Goenka. Over the years the ownership has changed, as has the location; after eight years on Carter Road, it moved to Pali Naka in 2011, and to its present location on 16th Road, Bandra-West, four months ago. The day-to-day management, though, has remained in the hands of Sheikh and Ramesha since the start. Ramesha speaks often and with authority; Sheikh is more circumspect. Sheikh’s preference runs to classic Hindi and English films; Ramesha drops auteur names like Roman Polanski and Yasujirō Ozu and confides towards the end of our chat that he’s trying to make it as a director.

Though they have some 11,000 members in their database, Ramesha admits that the current numbers are “extremely down”. “With difficulty, we get about 100 customers a month,” he says. A decade ago, however, the library would receive around 200 calls and lend a hundred DVDs on average every day. Hollywood films comprised the bulk of their trade but what set them apart from all but a few rental stores was their world cinema collection. Even today, the selection is broad and eclectic, covering the familiar (Federico Fellini, Jean-Luc Godard, Pedro Almodóvar) and the obscure (the short films of D.W. Griffith).

I should mention my own debt of gratitude to Movie Empire. Ten years ago, on a two-month training programme in Mumbai, I visited their store on Carter Road and fell in love, not just with world cinema (which I had recently started devouring) but with the beatific vision of shelves stacked with DVDs. For someone who had read of Andrei Tarkovsky and Sergei Eisenstein and Jean Renoir but had never seen them, as it were, in the flesh, this was close to a religious experience. Even today, I remember the titles I rented: Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Mamma Roma, Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle Of Algiers, Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura.

Ten minutes from Movie Empire, the Sarvodaya Video Centre is an even more venerated haunt for foreign film fans. It opened in the pre-DVD era, when Manish Chandaria, after converting part of his father’s general store, began renting out VHS tapes in 1982 (his younger brother, Bakul, managed the business with him from 1990 to 2015). Today, the store sells phones and electronics in addition to lending DVDs and Blu-rays. The ground floor has mostly English and Hindi films and TV series, but go up a winding staircase and you’ll find yourself in a low-roofed attic chock full of world cinema.

Chandaria sources all the DVDs himself. He estimates that there are some 12,000 titles now. Each DVD has an old-fashioned library card at the back. “The aim is to have each one borrowed 20 times,” he says. “If it goes 20 times then I’ve made back my money.”

He runs me through some of the titles in the attic. “There are such amazing films here,” he murmurs. “Makes me feel proud.” He looks at a pile of Tartan releases of Ingmar Bergman films, calls them zabardast. Also zabardast are the Artificial Eye DVDs on the nearby shelf. I notice a copy of Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Camera Buff and mention that the film’s lead actor, Jerzy Stuhr, had been at the Pune International Film Festival a week ago. “Really?” he asks, face creasing into a smile. “This man? And where did you find the DVD?”

This might be the greatest contribution of these rental libraries—making a broad selection of foreign-language films available to cinephiles (variable quality notwithstanding, pirated DVD sellers might have had an even more profound effect). Unsurprisingly, both the Bandra-Khar outlets have well-known directors, producers, writers and actors among their clientele. Ramesha mentioned Sujoy Ghosh, Anurag Kashyap, Amole Gupte and Siddharth Roy Kapur, while Chandaria listed Ranbir Kapoor, David Dhawan and Aamir Khan as old customers, and spoke of his friendships with Ram Gopal Varma and A.R. Rahman.

It wasn’t just the films. Libraries such as these were places to browse and unwind, to talk cinema with like-minded people. Over the phone, Kahaani director Sujoy Ghosh recalled how he started off borrowing laserdiscs from Sarvodaya in 1998. “Even if wasn’t a filmmaker I would still visit both Sarvodaya and Movie Empire with equal enthusiasm,” he said. “It’s the pleasure of shopping. You flick through the DVDs, read the back covers, discover so many things you didn’t know.”    

Sarvodaya is marginally better off than Movie Empire—Chandaria owns the store and thus saves on rent. Yet, he too admits that the era of the DVD, and of DVD rentals, is almost over. “Everything has its time,” he says, fatalistically. Barring a major crackdown on illegal downloading, he sees little chance of the business recovering. He has no immediate plans to close down, though; he feels an obligation to his old clients, some of whom have been coming in since they were children, or have brought their own children in.

“Across Bombay you see that it’s shut down—DVD sales, rentals,” Sheikh says. “Everyone’s changing their business. No one wants to take the risk.” I ask what they’ll do with their stock if they have to close down. “Who knows?” Ramesha says, “It’ll end up in personal collections. Or we’ll keep it in a flat somewhere...”

With the closing of Shemaroo and Teenage libraries, Casablanca, on Carmichael Road, is the only significant rental store supplying the southern parts of south Mumbai. It was started in 1999 by Kalpesh Kerawala, who had joined Shemaroo as a 17-year-old and worked there for five years. Casablanca initially operated out of a bungalow on Altamount Road belonging to Kerawala’s friend and then-partner Nikhil Gupta. Kerawala claims they were the “first exclusive DVD library in Mumbai, maybe in India”—other stores were still selling VHS tapes and laser-discs when he decided to concentrate only on DVDs, he says.

Most of Casablanca’s customers live in the arc from Shivaji Park to Cuffe Parade, and from Bombay Central to Agripada. There are still a few drop-ins every day—a 60-something woman comes in looking for new releases, and is recommended Akan Satayev’s Anonymous by Kerawala—but the business runs primarily on deliveries. The store differs from its Bandra counterparts in that there’s a predominance of Hollywood films, old and new, and little foreign-language cinema. Kerawala is well aware of this, explaining that the clientele for world cinema consists of “filmi people”, who live mostly in Bandra and Andheri (“They want to watch all these foreign films, basically, to get ideas,” he says).

Casablanca has some 3,000 customers in its database, but Kerawala says only a couple of hundred are still active. He remembers how, at their peak, they would average 150 rentals a day. Now, he says, it’s a struggle to break even every month. There are customers who have stuck with him from the beginning, but it’s getting increasingly difficult to convince people to continue their memberships, he says. “Customers ask me, why should I renew?”

Casablanca, like Movie Empire, is a rented property, and the high cost of keeping a business running on Carmichael Road is forcing Kerawala to consider closing down the store and operating out of a garage. Like everyone else, he speaks of the near-impossibility of running a DVD rental business in the age of streaming services and illegal downloads. His few remaining regulars are mostly over the age of 50: the sort who couldn’t be bothered to get a Netflix account or learn how to work a torrent.

Our conversation seemingly over, I reach to switch off the recorder. At this point, Kerawala, under the misconception that I am a screenwriter, mentions that he had always hoped to write a movie himself. I ask if he has any unpublished drafts lying around. “There used to be,” he replies, speaking very softly, as if trying not to wake slumbering memories. “I didn’t write down stuff, but I had a voice recorder, which had short stories, many things. And one day, I left the recorder in a cab. So it’s all gone.”

This piece appeared in Mint Lounge.