Saturday, July 15, 2017

The classroom in French cinema

In 1959, Jean-Luc Godard, then a critic, and a year away from launching one of the most significant film careers ever, wrote a polemic for the French magazine Arts. Addressing the film-makers whom he and his cohorts at Cahiers Du Cinéma had sarcastically dubbed the “tradition of quality”, he wrote: “We cannot forgive you for never having filmed girls as we love them, boys as we see them every day, parents as we despise or admire them, children as they astonish us or leave us indifferent; in other words, things as they are.”

Godard’s phrasing of this complaint is revealing. He isn’t disappointed in the old guard, or angry at them. He can’t forgive them for what they’ve done to his cinema. And he wasn’t the only one at Cahiers taking such matters to heart. In 1954, in an essay titled “A Certain Tendency Of The French Cinema”, François Truffaut attacked “le cinéma de papa (daddy’s cinema)”. “Aurenche and Bost are essentially literary men,” he wrote, “and I reproach them here for being contemptuous of the cinema by underestimating it” (italics mine).


That article brought Truffaut welcome notoriety a few years before his debut film, The 400 Blows, played at the Cannes Film Festival in 1959 and alerted the world to the French New Wave. It was also notable for a phrase he uses in it: “la politique des Auteurs”—essentially, a policy of treating directors with a distinctive visual style as auteurs, or authors, and regarding them as superior to directors who couldn’t (or wouldn’t) put their stamp on source material. The Auteur Theory, as it came to be known, became one of the central theses of modern cinema.

No one takes cinema quite as seriously as the French. Certainly, this is reflected in critical thinking about film, which is dominated by ideas birthed in France. Auteurism—which grew out of the critical work of André Bazin, Truffaut’s mentor, in the 1940s—might be the most influential concept to emerge from the country, but consider the other French terms that have crept into the global lexicon. Film noir, that most American genre, was a term coined in France when post-war critics started noticing a predominance of downbeat, shadowy films from the US and called them noir (black). Montage, which came from the French monter (to mount or assemble), is the worldwide term for a rapid succession of images; a fundamental editing theory is the Soviet system of montage. Even mise-en-scène—basically, everything in front of the camera—occasionally escapes the confines of academic film writing to confuse lay readers.

That the French have been, and remain, central to the critical discourse surrounding cinema is not surprising. To use a highly reductive analogy: If American films are about people doing things, French films are about the discussion of ideas. If you look at their films carefully, you can see where this argumentativeness comes from. I don’t know any other cinema, especially in recent years, that’s had as many charged scenes set in classrooms as the French.


It was Laurent Cantet’s The Class which placed this idea in my head. In 2008, the year when Cantet’s film won the Palme d’Or, I had started to move my world cinema intake beyond the Bergmans and Fellinis. The Class thrilled me in ways that I wouldn’t have expected a gritty-looking film about a man teaching a group of inner-city children to do. The back-and-forth between the professor and his students was unpredictably electric—a discussion about Anne Frank, for instance, ends up as a snapshot of modern-day, multicultural France in all its complexity.



From that point on, I started noticing classroom scenes in all sorts of French films. Sometimes these were central to the narrative—as in The Class, or Nicolas Philibert’s excellent documentary, Être Et Avoir, which unfolds over a year in a rural preschool—or used ironically, or as a premonition. In Jeune & Jolie, the grave central character, who will soon start working as an escort, recites Rimbaud: “No one’s serious at seventeen”. Blue Is The Warmest Colour, about the sexual awakening of a young student, has a reading of Pierre de Marivaux’s La Vie De Marianne (which is echoed in the French title of the film, La Vie d’Adèle). “I am a woman, and I tell my story,” a student says aloud. “Among the young men I attracted was one I myself noticed. My gaze fell upon him in particular. I didn’t realize the pleasure I procured.” Replace “him” with “her” and it’s almost a prediction of Adele’s first glimpse of her soon-to-be lover Emma.

It isn’t just that classrooms are featured in these films, it’s the argumentativeness of the people in them that’s indicative of a culture that thrives on debate and deconstruction. This could range from the philosophical arguments in Things To Come to the bruising scene in Divines, in which the motormouth protagonist, Dounia, demolishes her teacher’s self-control. Though classrooms may figure prominently in French films, they aren’t treated as a hallowed space. It’s worth remembering that one of the foundation texts of French cinema, Jean Vigo’s Zéro De Conduite, was a celebration of student anarchy—as was the equally influential film it inspired, Truffaut’s The 400 Blows.



I happened to be in France last month. Speaking to a dentist who worked in Paris, I mentioned how fascinating it was to see ideas debated by students in film after film. He replied that it wasn’t surprising—that structuring a cogent argument and debating it, often without any urgency to arrive at a solution, was something the French placed a premium on.

A cinema that’s about ideas, and a country that takes seriously the idea of cinema (and not just movie-going)—the evidence is everywhere. In Paris, I visited the Cinémathèque, home to 40,000 films, 500,000 photographs and 30,000 film-related documents, and the Librairie du Cinéma du Panthéon, a film-themed book store whose owner casually informed me that there were 15-20 repertory theatres in the vicinity (there isn’t a single dedicated repertory in Mumbai).

On Deauville beach in Normandy, I came across signs commemorating the legendary Jean-Pierre Melville and Anna Karina, both of whom had shot films there. Walking past the mk2 theatre in Paris, I noticed their dream line-up of Eraserhead, Twin Peaks and I Am Not Your Negro. My favourite sighting, though, was in Châtelet, Paris. From high up on a wall, Richie Tenenbaum gazed down upon college-goers blowing off steam on a Friday night. Even the film graffiti there has good taste.


This piece appeared in Mint Lounge as part of a series on world cinema.

The gang that couldn’t shoot straight

Though he’s been making short films since 1993, Ashim Ahluwalia’s first feature was the documentary John And Jane, in 2005. It was his first fiction feature, Miss Lovely (2012), though, which put him on the world cinema map. A dark, fractured narrative set in Mumbai’s soft-core horror film industry in the 1980s, the film was a rare Competition section entry for India at the Cannes Film Festival.

Ahluwalia’s candid, cine-literate interviews and experimental shorts (his last was the imaginative 2016 film Events In A Cloud Chamber) have suggested a film-maker whose sensibilities were headed in an opposite direction from the mainstream. This is why the announcement that he’d be taking on a popular genre (the gangster movie) and a star (Arjun Rampal) with a biopic of Mumbai mob boss-turned-politician Arun Gawli came as a surprise.

Daddy releases in September. Ahluwalia spoke to us—appropriately, given the genre under discussion, in the back room of a restaurant—about making a “mass” film on his own terms and getting a Bollywood A-lister to watch Japanese New Wave films. Edited excerpts from an interview:

‘Daddy’ appears to be your most straightforward, story-driven film.
The funny thing about that is, for people who know my work, it’s my most straight film, but the people from within the industry who’ve seen it, think it’s very edgy. Without revealing too much, it’s a Gawli biopic where Gawli’s point of view is missing. It has the framework of an investigation which takes place in 2011, when he’s coming to power. An old cop who’s almost retired is told to investigate him. He speaks to various characters from Gawli’s life, so you have multiple points of view.

For me, this is kind of an experiment: not because of the form, but to see if I can work in a mass genre. In my mind, it’s not a festival film. The dream is to make a film that a cinephile can watch, and a guy from Dagdi chawl can watch; that they can both take different things from and are still satisfied.

It was Arjun Rampal who approached you with the idea of a Gawli biopic.
He was not a producer then, but he had the rights. I didn’t know Arjun at all before we met on a commercial. I hadn’t seen any of his films, but we hit it off. He started telling me (about the Gawli biopic), saying, “Some of the producers are not getting it, it’s really unfortunate—I have the rights of the real guy but they’re making it into Once Upon A Time In Mumbaai.”

Arjun had started writing a draft based on the stories he had heard from Gawli and the gang. I think the fact that his draft wasn’t heroic was the reason I said yes. Had it been a superman movie in the guise of a gangster movie, I would’ve said no.

I told him, if we’re going to do this together, how about we chop this up, put in different points of view. I pulled out a lot of dialogue, put more voice-over in. It became closer to the kind of gangster movie I would want to make.

How did Rampal become the co-producer?
Arjun and I were clear on the kind of film we wanted to make, but the producers weren’t. I’d get recommendations from them to cast an A-list actor, or to have Sunny Leone do an item number. It didn’t feel right for this film. It had gotten to the point where I said, I can’t do the movie like this. So to fix this, Arjun became a co-producer. The company (Kundalini Entertainment) didn’t exist before this. He had to make a company to make the movie.

Were you wary of working in a relatively mainstream space for the first time?
Totally. My contract is so paranoid Arjun would just call and laugh at it.

Did you get final cut?
I have final cut, and I get involved in everything. That’s just how I tend to work. I’m even involved in the font design of the poster. In the beginning I was told in the industry the director just makes the movie, someone makes the poster, someone else cuts the trailer. I was like, no, but it’s my trailer!

Do you have memories of Gawli from when you were growing up?
This film is coming off the back of Miss Lovely in a strange way, because it’s also Bombay (now Mumbai) in the 1980s. I grew up with pictures of dead bodies in the papers and the whole mythology of the gangster. I’m a south Bombay kid, so I’ve seen the mill lands before they were gentrified.

What was most interesting about Gawli is that I never found out who he was. Every gangster projects a certain kind of image. Dawood was very flamboyant, stylish—the classic don. Gawli is an enigma, impenetrable. My image of him was the politician with the topi, white kurta, clean—and I could never figure how this guy was the mobster. He breaks all stereotypes, Hollywood and otherwise, of the gangster. He’s very good with image-making, and he understands public perception. That to me is the basis of cinema as well.

Did you meet him for the film?
I spent time with him. One thing that struck me is how working-class he is. He comes from Dagdi chawl and he has an underdog complex. He’s often been treated very unfairly. I wrote this into the script—the guy who doesn’t want to be a gangster but just to prove that he can do it, he does something impulsive, and then he’s stuck. Then, to get out, he does something even more impulsive, and he’s stuck further.

This to me is the story of Gawli’s life. I think it is unlike any other gang movie—instead of a gangster with a proactive approach, you have one who’s on the back foot all the time. It’s a very reactive way of dealing with the world, very different from the plotting gangster you imagine.

Did you get the impression that he genuinely believes he’s a social worker?
I talked to people who live in Dagdi chawl and Agripada and they’re huge admirers of him. He is seen almost as a saviour. Obviously, that’s one side of the story: Some say it’s all a PR stunt. Of course, people have different views of him. If you ask me what I know about him, it’s as much as you do after watching the film, which is six different points of view, none of which match up.

The question for me isn’t, “Is Gawli good or bad?” but rather, who is the criminal? Is it the guy who cleared the mill lands? Is it the owner who wanted the workers out with low compensation? Or is it the person who bought a flat in a building that came up in place of the mills? It’s easy to say, this guy did the dirty job, but who paid him to pull the trigger, and where did the funds come from? Was that my security deposit that went into paying for somebody’s hit?

Are multiple points of view used as a formal disruptive device?
Absolutely. The classic film that does this is Rashomon. There’s also a film that was very influential when I was making this, which was Shohei Imamura’s Vengeance Is Mine.

There’s an interview with Rampal in which he describes you showing him something that sounds like Imamura’s film.
Arjun and I have a funny relationship. He tries to get me to meet a Bollywood action director, and he watches me squirm, and I put him through Japanese New Wave films and watch him squirm. But Vengeance Is Mine was very interesting because it’s a film about a serial killer that doesn’t want to blame the killer, it wants to blame Japan for creating him. I think there’s a parallel here with the city of Mumbai.

Were there other cinematic influences on ‘Daddy’?
Imamura is someone who is deeply influential for me. That moment in Japanese history (when he began making films)—the late 1950s and early 1960s—is similar to the moment we’re going through now in India: a transitional phase where we’re getting all this global capitalism but there’s also this feudal structure, and both are exploding into each other. I find Imamura very relevant—socially, and in terms of dealing with sexual mores.

One of the things I really wanted to do was avoid the traditional gangster movie references—Goodfellas, the Godfather trilogy. That’s all been flogged to death, and that’s not the only mythology of gangsters.

They’re not my cup of tea, but I think that within Bollywood, gangster films have been the most interesting in some ways. A film like Satya—I think what Ram Gopal (Verma) and Anurag (Kashyap) were able to do with it was to break the fantasy, take the film on to the streets, make the film with real dialogue, with faces that feel like they’re from that space. What it’s done for the industry and for all of us to be able to make movies like that, is immense.

Have we been able to put our own spin on the gangster film in the manner that French or Hong Kong cinema did?
Not as much as I would have liked. If you look at a Hong Kong gangster film, or you watch a Yakuza film or an Italian gangster film, they’re all very distinctive. I think it’ll happen, but it hasn’t happened yet. I find the south Indian gangster films very interesting, though: I think that’s actually where you’re seeing a local cinema aesthetic developing.

‘Miss Lovely’ was largely improvised. In this film, you have a dialogue writer.
A lot of the dialogue was improvised or written on set. I didn’t have a bound screenplay. My Hindi writing isn’t great, so I wanted someone with whom we could do lines. So we got Ritesh Shah, who kind of knows my sensibility. When it became hard to improvise, or when we had an idea of a line but didn’t know how to phrase it, we’d call Ritesh. He’d call back, and say, how about this, and we’d shoot it.

You’ve used two cinematographers, Pankaj Kumar and Jessica Lee Gagné.
Jessica comes from an art house space—this is probably the most commercial film she’s done. It was quite difficult to convince everyone about her early on: 27 years old, French-Canadian, shooting a Bombay gangster movie, especially in this industry, which can be quite male-centric.

This is my first film that’s been shot digital. We did a lot of work—we shot anamorphic, we shot with old lenses that were used on Sholay. I wanted large frames but I didn’t want it to be glossy. She couldn’t do the entire thing because of scheduling. She shot 70% of the film. Pankaj and I always wanted to work together, so he took over for the remaining part.

The film spans four decades. Did you have visual cues for different eras?
Jessica and I developed a palette. I wanted to have each era lit with a different colour temperature. For me the 1970s was sodium-vapour yellow. In the 1980s you start getting tungsten and white tube light. The 1990s becomes cleaner, and 2012 is just glass and cold. So when you’re going back and forth in time, you don’t have to use colour grading techniques, you’re doing it actually in the environment. We used this as a basis for the art direction as well.

Has the indie scene changed compared to, say, five years ago?
I think the indie scene is really infiltrating Bollywood. Five years ago I wouldn’t even be able to have a conversation with a producer. Now I get calls from old-school Bollywood producers saying “Ashim ji, aake miliye (come and meet us)”, which is hilarious. So I think there’s something major happening, like a tectonic shift.

This piece appeared in Mint Lounge.

Baby Driver: Review

Poetry before prose. Baby Driver is a concerto in sixth gear and an adrenaline shot to the heart. Better films may release this year, but it’s difficult to imagine any supplying cinematic joy in such generous doses. If Fury Road was Wagner on wheels, this chrome wheeled, fuel injected musical is Beethoven’s Ninth.

That Edgar Wright is responsible for it is hardly surprising. Few directors since Steven Spielberg have been able to marshal this convincingly the various tricks of cinema for the purposes of pure entertainment. Each whip pan, every tracking shot is deployed for maximum impact. In an age of bewilderingly quick editing, Wright seems to cut at exactly the right moment—and to elicit a reaction. A breathless one-take might be followed by a chopped-up chase: whatever makes the scene work, the material sing.

All this trickery is grounded in the familiarity of genre. Baby Driver is, essentially, a “one last job and I’m out” movie, a scenario that’s as central to the heist narrative as the exercise montage is to the sports film. Baby (Ansel Elgort) is a getaway driver, a prodigiously talented young man with a quirk: he must have music—his music, spread over multiple iPods—playing in his ears constantly, to drown out the tinnitus that’s dogged him ever since an accident when he was little. He’s in debt to Doc (Kevin Spacey), a crime boss whose car he mistakenly stole and who’s extracting payment for that one heist at a time.

In 1973, George Lucas introduced the idea of the mixtape soundtrack with American Graffiti, and Martin Scorsese timed Harvey Kietel’s head hitting the pillow in Mean Streets to the pistol-shot opening of "Be My Baby". The backbeat of rock has been a fixture in American film-making ever since, yet, even within this tradition, Wright does something unique, using Baby’s tinnitus to create a wholly convincing rock musical. Movement is inextricably linked to sound, only, instead of just having bodies in motion, Wright makes the entire screen move to the beat. Screeching tires blend with guitar solos, fingers drum in time to the percussion. Elgort dances, the camera dances, the film seems to dance too.

As in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, the sordidness of the criminal world in Baby Driver is contrasted with a shy romance. Our hero’s attention is snagged by a server in the local diner named Dobora (Lily James), who walks singing “B-A-B-Y baby”, a Carla Thomas number. The ensuing romance is prototypically American—diner, Laundromat, pop music—and, in its dreamy optimism, indicative of an earlier era (Debora’s dream is to head out on the open road with no fixed plan, a sentiment that’s more Beat Generation than millennial). Wright is playing with multiple genres here: along with the wholesome teen romance, you get the unpredictability of the heist film, the smoothness of the musical and the pounding muscularity of the action film, all weaving in and out like radio channels being switched.

Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx, Jon Bernthal and Eiza González have a grand time playing assorted lowlifes, and Spacey is his usual sardonic self, but it’s Elgort—impassive except for when he lets his guard down and belts out old soul numbers—who’s the most compelling presence. The wall-to-wall soundtrack, switching from radio staples to deep cuts ("New Orleans Instrumental No. 1", anyone?), is a character in itself. This is a film for people who take pop music seriously, who believe in the sanctity of the right track for the right situation. When one particular heist hits a roadbump, Baby rewinds the track he’s playing ("Neat, Neat, Neat" by The Damned) until it’s where it needs to be for maximum inspiration, and only then zooms off. High Fidelity’s Rob would have loved this scene.

In his spare time, Baby takes conversations he’s recorded, chops them up and makes recordings—real life reduced to a mix tape. Baby Driver is full of cool details like this, but Wright takes care to link them to emotion; one of the tapes—probably the oldest one—is of Baby’s dead mother singing. No matter how outlandish the premise, there’s always been a sweetness to Wright’s films.

This review appeared in Mint.

Tubelight: Review

“So there’s this idea I had for a film. You have Salman. Plays a simple guy, good heart, not very bright. There’s this criminally cute kid. Om Puri’s in there somewhere. And there’s some border conflict they’re all wrapped up in. Kabir to direct.”

“Sounds great. What’s it called?”

Bajrangi Bhaijaan. And if it’s a hit we’ll make another just like it and call it Tubelight.”

For legal reasons, I should state this fanciful imagining of mine probably bears no resemblance to the actual greenlighting process at Salman Khan Films or Kabir Khan Films, producers of Bajrangi Bhaijaan (2015) and Tubelight. But even if it does, this is how a studio is supposed to behave: when your film earns Rs 600 crore, you immediately get the team behind it to do the same thing over again, only slightly different. Replace India-Pakistan tensions with the Sino-Indian war of 1962, a lost girl with a misunderstood boy, and a heroic journey with a heroic wait, and you have Tubelight—like Bajrangi Bhaijaan, only worse in every way.

Though he’s long since given up on quick-witted types, the characters Salman’s played in his last few films can be situated on a scale from Forrest Gump to Boo Radley. Here, the protagonist’s density gives the film its title; ever since he was a kid, Laxman has always been a little late to the comprehension party, like a tubelight that flickers several times before working. His parents are no more, but his younger brother, Bharat (Sohail Khan, Salman’s real-life brother), keeps him out of harm’s way. However, when war breaks out, Bharat enlists, and Laxman is left behind in the care of the kindly Banne Chacha (Om Puri).

Bajrangi Bhaijaan didn’t exactly shy away from extolling the homespun virtues of its protagonist, but it’s got nothing on Tubelight, which is so intent on stuffing Laxman full of innocent goodness that there’s no room left for personality. This is a shameless creation: not just childlike and endearing but a follower of Gandhi, a patriot, a doting brother. He befriends a young boy, Guo (Matin Rey Tangu), and his mother, Liling; they’re Indian by birth but have Chinese ancestors, which leaves them vulnerable in this Kumaon hill town which has sent its sons to fight the enemy. As with Bajrangi, we’re offered lessons in togetherness by Salman and an elfin child—this, apparently, is the “politics” that the director promised in interviews leading up to the film’s release.

At times, Kabir Khan seems caught between his own liberal leanings and the demands of making a mass-market film in a jingoistic age. One scene, in particular, was supremely disappointing. Mistaking Guo for a Chinese boy, Laxman insists that he says “Bharat mata ki jai”. “If you’re Indian you’ll say it, otherwise you’re Chinese,” he tells the child, who immediately yells the phrase. This is the sort of reductive thinking that one would have assumed Kabir Khan is opposed to. If there’s a substantive difference between this and ridiculous measures of patriotism like “If you don’t stand for the national anthem, you aren’t a patriot” or “If you praise the Pakistani cricket team, you’re a traitor”, then I can’t see it.

It’s nearly always excruciating when an actor with limited talent plays a character with limited intelligence. Normally, the charge against Salman is that he doesn’t do anything; here, he does so much that you’ll be begging for him to go back to his minimalist ways. Liling is played by Chinese actor Zhu Zhu; even when she and Salman are in a scene together, they’re worlds apart. Tangu is, in theory at least, adorable.

Early on in Tubelight, Laxman is told, “Har insaan ke andar jaadugar hai (There’s a magician inside each one of us).” He spends the rest of the film trying to move mountains with his mind. A Salman Khan film in which anything is displaced by the power of thought is almost too much irony to bear.

This review appeared in Mint.

Daughters of the Dust: Film as folk art


One happy by-product of Beyoncé’s Lemonade becoming a big enough cultural talking point is that film critics ended up reviewing the “visual album” accompanying the record. A couple of them saw the images of black women in flowing white dresses on a beach and recalled an acclaimed but little-seen film from 1991. Julie Dash’s Daughters Of The Dust was the first feature by an African-American woman to be theatrically released in the US, but over the years it had become little more than a bucket-list item for historically minded cinephiles. Then came Queen Bey’s nod, which spurred plans for restoration and re-release. Earlier this month, it appeared on Netflix.

If you’re a film fan, this unexpected access to Dash’s film should be cause for celebration. Daughters Of The Dust is more than a fiercely unique blend of indigenous tradition and film technique. Released at the same time as Richard Linklater’s Slacker, and a year before Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, it seems today to point to a path that American indie cinema never took: film as folk art.

By setting Daughters in 1902, among the Gullah people of St Simons Island, off the South Carolina-Georgia coast, Dash (whose father was Gullah) offers that rarity—an American film that’s entirely about black lives and culture. The film shows the Pazant family (and, by extension, the Gullah) at a symbolic crossroads: Many of them are leaving home and heading north, which leads to arguments over whether they’ll be able to preserve their way of life away from the island. This was a community cut off from the mainland, which meant that they had retained, at the turn of the 20th century, some of the African traditions they brought over when they came to the US as slaves. The film begins with Islamic prayer, there’s a Cherokee character, several different Creole accents, but not a single white face (and few male characters). This would be radical in 2017, so you can imagine why many found the film “difficult” in 1991.

To be fair, there are other reasons why this isn’t the easiest film to grasp. The viewer must contend not only with the thick accents (turn subtitles on if you’re at sea) but with Dash’s elliptical, startlingly lyrical style. Like the Brazilian Glauber Rocha with Entranced Earth, or early Marathi directors like Fattelal-Damle or Dadasaheb Phalke, she uses the tricks of cinema—superimposition, speeding up and slowing down scenes—to suggest more ancient forms of magic. One could read in the flat voice-over and the unhurried beauty the influence of Terrence Malick; then again, it’s difficult not to see shades of Daughters in mystical, nature-worshipping Malick films like The Thin Red Line and The New World.

It’s tempting to assume that had this film released today, it would be recognized as the masterpiece it is. But this is hardly a given: It took a nudge from one of the most recognizable women in the world for people to seek it out. Nevertheless, it’s out now, and ready for its close-up.

This piece appeared in Mint Lounge.

G Kutta Se: Review

When Rahul Dahiya’s film played at the 2015 Mumbai Film Festival, it was called G – A Wanton Heart. For its theatrical release, the makers have swapped that title for G Kutta Se. Though it’s weird to say out loud—I mumbled it at the ticket counter—I like the terse honesty of this better than the Shakespearean flourish of “wanton”. A film about crude, violent characters deserves a crude, violent title.

The film, set in interior Haryana, deals in tremendous violence, most of it directed towards, or undertaken on behalf of, women. This may sound similar to 2015’s NH10, in which Anushka Sharma was pursued by murderous Haryanvi thugs, but there are a couple of significant differences. NH10 was a genre film, albeit one grounded in reality: it had a setup, conflict, crisis, catharsis. G Kutta Se is no thriller; it’s a nightmare that won’t let up, at times unfolding like a dramatization of the harrowing accounts in Nakul Singh Sawhney’s documentary on khap panchayats, Izzatnagari Ki Asabhya Betiyan.

It takes a while for the film to play its most intriguing card. In the first of three intersecting stories, a young woman, Preeti, elopes with her husband’s driver, only to find herself kidnapped by three men on the highway. She’s nearly raped in the back seat by one of them before their leader, Virender, intervenes. He sits next to Preeti, calms her down, talks to her, and, before you know it, she’s smiling. A couple of scenes later, they hug, and he gets her phone number.

While I have a problem with the speed of Preeti’s recovery and the idea that she’d be friendly with her kidnapper a couple of minutes after being assaulted, there’s a theme that this scene triggers. Desire, the film seems to argue, will spring up, unbidden, even in the most women-unfriendly environments imaginable. We see this repeated in the other stories as well. A young girl, Diksha, spies on a group of boys bathing in a pond, and when one leads her away to make a lewd video, she’s too curious to protest. Her older cousin, Kiran, is in a secret relationship with a local lad, and is shown as eager to initiate a physical relationship with him, going to the extent of risking her reputation and well-being.

These small grasps at desire aside, women in G Kutta Se are denied agency so consistently that even relatively minor transgressions begin to assume significance, like an unwilling Diksha being forced to sing by her father, or Kiran’s boyfriend cussing at her for refusing to have sex. The film is shot, documentary-style, by Sachin Kabir and Alok Shrivastav: the roving camera and the starkness of the surroundings match the sordidness of speech and subject matter. The few visual flourishes included – a woman’s hair blown a passing train, a spectacular burning Raavan – are well judged, but there’s little beauty here, or mercy.

Dahiya, who also wrote the film, occasionally reaches for metaphors that don’t quite make sense, like the crosscutting of a deliberate murder with the inadvertent killing of a dog. Yet, for the most part, this is a sharp, pitiless look at a society governed by feudal minds overly concerned with women’s honour while utterly dismissive of their rights. G Kutta Se might seem violent and unsubtle. Then again, so might India.

This review appeared in Mint.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

At home and in the world

A panel for the Lounge Lounge series, conducted by Sankhayan Ghosh and myself, with:

Baradwaj Rangan, critic with the online film content platform, Film Companion

Amit Masurkar, director of Newton, which was selected for the Forum section at the 2017 Berlin Film Festival

Meenakshi Shedde, critic, festival curator and South Asia consultant to the Berlin and Dubai film festivals

Smriti Kiran, creative director, Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival

Vikramaditya Motwane, director and co-founder, Phantom Films. His first film, Udaan, was selected for the Un Certain Regard section at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival

Radhika Apte, actor in Madly and Parched, which played at the Tribeca and Toronto film festivals, respectively


What does it mean to be a “hot” film-making country? This vague honour is bestowed—invariably by tastemakers in the West—on countries as disparate as Iran and South Korea, Hungary and Mexico. For one reason or another, India never seems to be part of this conversation.

It’s been years since an Indian film made the competition section at a major international festival, even though there has been a steady trickle of titles to parallel sections in Cannes, Berlin and Venice. The 2017 Cannes Film Festival concluded on 28 May, and no Indian film—save Payal Kapadia’s short Afternoon Clouds—was shown there.

Over brunch at It Happened in New York, the bar and bistro, in Mumbai’s Bandra neighbourhood, we asked our panellists, all of whom are intimately familiar with the festival scene, about India’s standing in world cinema. Edited excerpts:

Do you think India’s stock on the world scene has fallen, risen or stayed the same over the last decade?
Shedde: It has risen a lot. Indian cinema, mainstream and indie, is growing in different directions and has more diversity than before. But I do suspect sheer industrial economics plays a part. A lot of festivals are paying attention to the fact that India and China are big markets.

Kiran: It is unfortunate that in the last four-five years there hasn’t been a single Indian film that has been programmed in the competition sections at Berlin or Cannes or Venice. That is something we should look at. I know some people at the Cannes press conference asked why there weren’t films from India, but it isn’t incumbent on any festival (to select Indian films). We just have to make better films that get selected on merit.

Rangan: I disagree a little with that, because I think festival line-ups also have a lot do with big names. I watched almost all the competition films in Cannes this time, and I was frankly surprised at some of the movies that were there. The Arnaud Desplechin movie (Ismael’s Ghosts) is hard to justify as a choice, but it has Marion Cotillard and Charlotte Gainsbourg, so it brings a certain glamour to the red carpet.
I don’t mean to be conspiratorial about it, but there is a club and certain countries haven’t made it there yet.

There’s this idea in world cinema of a “country of interest”—once it was Iran, then South Korea, now perhaps Hungary. Can India grow in that direction?
Motwane: The problem is that even though we make three-four movies a year which can potentially get selected at festivals, we rarely get to the stage of distribution beyond festivals: in movie theatres and on DVD. I’ve had my own films taken by the studio to festivals—people there say “great film” and nothing happens.
When you talk about countries in focus, it’s about a group. Whether it’s Chinese cinema in the late 1980s or Mexican cinema later—with Cuarón and Iñárritu and Del Toro (Alfonso Cuarón, Guillermo del Toro and Alejandro González Iñárritu)—there were always three-four film-makers who came together. Here, it is not happening. His studio is different, my studio is different…

Do you think we’re making better films than we were a decade earlier?
Masurkar: I don’t really know, because everything works together. We aren’t making better music or choosing better politicians. So how do you expect cinema to be any different? I really don’t think we are making world-class films which should be in competition.

Apte: I agree—very few films here match the kind of world cinema we’re now able to watch. I can speak as an actor when I say that there are some really good scripts that come along, but they never get made. There is so much compromise.

Kiran: I read a scary article in which Pahlaj Nihalani said that Indian film-makers are sneaking films outside to festivals and they should be censored. I am just saying that in this toxic environment, how do you encourage anyone to go and break form?

Is there a home-grown audience for a more challenging kind of cinema?
Apte: The kind of films we want to make, we don’t have the audience for them.

Shedde: People who dream of making films for their own people—that’s something that attracts me. As programmers, we can smell a film that’s made with a festival in mind a mile away, and we will never touch it.

Rangan: India is a very complex country, unlike, say, South Korea, where tastes are more uniform. Telugu cinema is very different from Tamil cinema. Some of the best mainstream cinema today is in Malayalam, but nobody knows about it because they’re happy releasing in their own state. It’s very difficult to make a pan-India film. This is only possible when you are working in a Baahubali grammar, where you have a mythological base level.

Masurkar: I’ve never understood how one can assume what an audience wants. We’ve been showing people posters of Newton recently. They all say, I like it, but mass won’t like it. We all like to think we’re class, not mass.

Is the absence of a year-round cinephile culture a concern?
Masurkar: With the Internet, you can sit anywhere and watch any film. My assistant for Newton is from Raipur—he knows all about Korean cinema. But there’s no offline community, no physical group. At the end of the day, people thrive on each other’s energies.

Kiran: We started the MAMI (Mumbai Academy of Moving Image) year-round programme because of this. Right now we just have screenings, but we want to have curatorial programmes, film-maker forums.

Shedde: I think developing audience tastes year round—through critics, curators, programmes—is key. But it’s also about doing things like 15-minute Q&As after screenings at the Berlin (International) Film Festival—it’s within the time slot, requires zero investment, and the audience is happy that the stars have answered their question.

The selection of Netflix films in competition at Cannes this time was a major signal to the film community. Does this excite you or make you wary?
Rangan: Scorsese is a big name among cinephiles, but studios won’t touch him unless he works with a DiCaprio. So when Netflix is putting up $100 million, it’s his opportunity to have a cut with minimum interference. The cost he is paying is that he will not get an international release.

Motwane: I am just thrilled that sitting here in India, I get to watch Okja or Scorsese’s next film on the same day as the rest of the world. Why would I complain?
Spielberg had said some years ago that in the future, we are going to have only tent-pole movies in theatres. The theatre experience will become the big-screen spectacle, and that’s totally fine.

So is the big-screen experience for indie or art-house cinema on its way out?
Motwane: People romanticize the dark hall, and I love to see my movies played there, but if I look at where I have discovered most films, it’s at home on DVD or the computer. Trapped can’t compete with an Alia-Varun film in its second week. I don’t mind if my film releases on Netflix, so people can watch it when and how they want. But I also think going to the movies isn’t a fun experience anymore.

Apte: Yes! Whenever I go to Europe I make sure I watch as many films as I can in theatres, because there’s no interval, no talking.

(Sankhayan) In terms of India raising its profile in world cinema, what do you think needs to happen?
Apte: We need to have a festival here with its own identity.

Kiran: I think we need to reach a point where our film-makers would prefer to premiere a film here rather than at a festival abroad. We don’t have a world-class film festival identity yet which is what we are trying to do with MAMI.

Rangan: The Dubai (International) Film Festival has become a good hub for Egyptian films, for Arab cinema. Similarly, we can become a good hub for Bangladeshi, Pakistani, Sri Lankan cinema. We could then say, if you want the best of South Asian cinema, come here.
Berlin, Cannes, Venice—80% of their programming is what one might call “white films”. There’ll be a bit of Asian representation, maybe a couple of films from the Middle East, but mostly it’s all the known auteurs. Hubs like these can redress the imbalance.

Shedde: That Asian connect is missing. When I am looking at Indian films for pre-selection at Berlin or Dubai, I pitch them in comparison to other Asian films.
We haven’t been able to develop a Busan. All the programmers who can’t visit Mumbai or Bangkok come to Busan as a one-stop shop for Asian films.

A Death in the Gunj: Review

It’s fitting that one of the first credits in A Death in the Gunj is of co-producer MacGuffin Pictures. Alfred Hitchcock—who popularised the MacGuffin, a plot device that’s a smokescreen for the film’s real intentions—sets The Trouble with Harry into motion with a darkly comic shot of a little boy looming large in the frame, staring down at a dead body. The opening shot of A Death is similar, with two men peering at something in the trunk of their car. We’re not shown what it is they’re seeing, but it’s a body of some sort and it’s starting to reek.

I’ve seen Konkona Sensharma’s film, her first full-length feature, twice now (it opened the Mumbai Film Festival last year), and the opening is perhaps the only aspect of it that doesn’t sit easy with me. It sets up the narrative as a series of events leading to a death—reinforced by a time frame: we know it’ll happen in a week. I think this Agatha Christie construction is a limiting way to experience this seductive, warily beautiful film. It’s also unnecessary. Even if it hadn’t begun with an off-screen corpse, the film is haunted by death, suffused with it.

Nandu (Gulshan Devaiah), his wife Bonnie (Tillotama Shome) and their eight-year-old daughter Tani (Arya Sharma) are visiting his parents—the wonderfully paired Om Puri and Tanuja—in McCluskieganj, a sleepy forest retreat in Jharkhand. Travelling with them are Nandu’s younger cousin, Shutu (Vikrant Massey), and Bonnie’s friend, Mimi (Kalki Koechlin). They’re joined there by two more friends: Vikram (Ranvir Shorey), newly married but still infatuated with Mimi, and Brian (Jim Sarbh), whose sideburns are a poem. It’s the last week of 1978, and everyone’s looking to bring in the New Year with a bang—all except Shutu, whose timidity barely masks his jumpy mental state.

Almost from the start, a delicate tapestry of death is woven. A frog wanders into the bathroom and the maid is called on to dispatch it. Shutu shows Tani a dead moth pressed in the pages of his book. Later, he reads aloud his favourite words with the letter “e”; the first one is “eulogy”—hardly surprising, given he’s still grieving for his recently deceased father. As his mental state frays, he incinerates a bug with a magnifying glass. The local baker places flowers and a sponge cake on her daughter’s grave. There’s also a séance, an event at the heart of the short story by Mukul Sharma (the director’s father) that this film is based on.

As several critics have noted, A Death bears more than a passing resemblance to Satyajit Ray’s Aranyer Din Ratri, another film about upper-middle-class Bengalis on vacation in small-town Bihar. But I was also reminded of Asghar Farhadi’s About Elly, in which a child disappears and a group of family and friends on vacation cracks under the strain (it should be noted that Farhadi loves MacGuffins too). There’s even a hint, perhaps, of Fanny and Alexander in the coming-of-age portions and the conga line that echoes the Christmas party scene in Ingmar Bergman’s film.

In my second viewing, I had the opportunity to notice details I’d missed the first time around: the remarkable hard winter light on Shutu’s face, captured by cinematographer Sirsha Ray; composer Sagar Desai transforming "Auld Lang Syne" into a Moriccone-like aria in the final scene; the way the puppy that Tani insists they adopt eventually becomes the responsibility of the house help. I also had the pleasure of confirming what I’d suspected the first time: that this was one of the most stunning ensembles in recent Indian film. Shorey is marvellous as the appalling Vikram but the heart of the film beats for Koechlin and Massey. When Mimi tells Shutu, “Run along now”, we can sense the power she wields over him; when she says, “You’re so pretty, you could be a girl”, we know he’s done for. Both characters are different kinds of fragile—it’s just that she’s hardened and he has no defences.

There are many large and compelling reasons to watch A Death in the Gunj. Here’s a small one: It’s a beautiful goodbye to Om Puri, who died this January. There he is, saying “Nothing gets better at this age” in that instantly familiar rasp. There he is again, getting drunk, confusing his granddaughter for a tortoise. He doesn’t have much heavy lifting to do in the film, but he still manages one great moment. In one scene, his character shuffles around the house at night, disoriented and half-awake. When Nandu tries to talk him into returning to bed, that famous Puri irascibility rises to the surface. “Am I the father, or are you?” he demands of his son.

Baywatch: Review

Baywatch and McDonald’s both came to India in the early-to-mid ’90s. It’s fitting that we took to both around the same time because they were, essentially, operating along similar lines. Both were utterly predictable and completely reliable, and—though it’s tough to admit now—pretty thrilling at the time. Baywatch was almost an illicit thrill: all that flesh, running about so matter-of-factly. Even back then, I don’t think we mistook it for good TV, yet it was one of the post-liberalization Western pop culture imports that hit us early, and hard.

Seth Gordon’s big-screen Baywatch reboot is the daftest $70 million movie I’ve seen, and Hollywood makes one of these a month. No one goes into a Dwayne Johnson-starrer expecting a comedy of manners, but there’s some Grand Masti-level imbecility on display here. Early on, a new lifeguard tryout, Ronnie (Jon Bass) gets his appendage stuck in a wooden board because he’s aroused by the presence of CJ (Kelly Rohrbach). It’s a dumb joke but the movie keeps at it; a crowd gathers, other lifeguards join in, the scene stretches over five minutes. This is what you get when you give $70 million to the director of Horrible Bosses.

Rather than pretend that whatever existing lifeguards Mitch (Johnson), CJ, Stephanie (Ilfenesh Hadera) and new applicants Ronnie, Summer (Alexandra Daddrio) and Matt (Zac Efron) get up to in the movie is worth detailing, let me instead provide a taste of the subtle pleasures that await. There’s an entire exchange between Matt and Summer about him not being able keep from glancing at her breasts. There’s a scene with the two of them and Mitch in a hospital morgue, in which Matt has to lift the testicles of a corpse and check for evidence. There’s scene after scene of Ronnie humiliating himself and CJ inexplicably finding herself attracted to him as a result (Hollywood logic: the charmless horny geek always ends up with the hot bimbo). And my favourite: the woman on a burning boat who tells Mitch, mid-rescue: “If you want me you can have me.”

There was, apparently, a screenplay (by Damian Shannon and Mark Swift), the source of such witticisms as “Who taught you to drive, Stevie fucking Wonder?” and “Baywatch isn’t a job, it’s a way of life”. Mitch actually tells the applicants that they will have to learn to “sacrifice for something larger than themselves”—a statement at once blandly all-American and hilariously misplaced. Priyanka Chopra—the biggest star in the film after Johnson and Efron—plays antagonist Victoria Leeds. “I’m not a Bond villain… yet,” she purrs; her manicured but lifeless performance here suggests that even this may not be immediately forthcoming.

David Hasselhoff and Pamela Anderson have brief cameos—I can picture them getting together on set and laughing about how this movie makes the series look like King Lear. A blooper reel runs alongside the end credits. I think it’s cute that the film thinks there’s a noticeable difference between Johnson or Efron flubbing and nailing a scene.

This review appeared in Mint. 

Sachin: A Billion Dreams: Review

A couple of months after John Lennon was shot, his former Beatles bandmate George Harrison paid tribute to him. “You had control of our smiles and our tears,” Harrison sang on "All Those Years Ago". This line has always struck me as an apt description of the hold Sachin Tendulkar had over this country. He was the barometer of our moods, the determiner of our self-worth. Conventional narrative will tell you that Sachin freed India up, but the truth is, we shackled ourselves to him for 24 years.

James Erskine’s documentary is shackled to its subject as well. Sachin: A Billion Dreams is a tribute reel, a Very Special Episode on a sports channel blown up to 138 minutes. It creates the illusion of intimacy, then gives you the same old Sachin story you know so well. And it has exactly the level of insight about India and its people that you’d expect from a director who isn’t from here.

To call this hagiography is to mince words: the extent to which this film flatters and hero-worships its subject is plain embarrassing. Not that this is a surprise – from the moment it was announced that Sachin would participate in the telling of his own life story, this was the only kind of film that was going to emerge. No one realistically expects Sachin – as much a master of the diplomatic dodge as the straight drive – to say “It was Azhar all along” or “Kambli kind of got on my nerves”. But couldn’t we at least have a moment of irritation when Dravid declares with him not out on 194? The strongest statements in the film are those concerning his sacking as captain in 1997. “No one even phoned me,” he says. And, a little later: “You can take captaincy from me, but not cricket.”

Apart from a few sepia-tinted docu-drama recreations of his childhood, the film allows Sachin to narrate his own story, often directly to camera, reading Erskine and Sivakumar Ananth’s mawkish lines in that earnest voice of his. There’s a wealth of match footage, some intimate home movies of Sachin with family and friends, and every talking head you’d expect in a film like this (the absences – Sanjay Manjrekar, Kapil Dev, Rahul Dravid – are more notable). Erskine offers no analysis of his own, just a steady stream of No 10’s greatest hits, set to a syrupy score by AR Rahman. There are some intriguing details (apparently, Sachin was a bat-repair wiz), but for the most part, we’re offered a drearily virtuous narrative: Tendulkar as dutiful son, loving father, dedicated servant of the nation.

Here’s the really embarrassing bit. Sachin: A Billion Dreams is a singularly unimaginative, almost slavish piece of documentary film-making. Yet, I couldn’t help getting wrapped up in it. How could I not? This wasn’t Sachin’s story unfolding – it was my own. There I was, staring in shock as he took those suicidal steps out of the crease in the 1996 World Cup semi-final. Switching off the TV after “desert storm” with the knowledge that I’d seen something that would stay with me the rest of my life. Watching him charge Henry Olonga and Michael Kasprowicz, journeymen bowlers who’ll never be forgotten in India because of the innings Sachin played against them.

Though it’s an inherently compromised film, Sachin provided a powerful communal viewing experience. In the hall, I could hear my own complaints echoed in the dark (“They’re going to skip over fixing”; “That was Sehwag’s game”). Incantations were uttered – “aisles”, “Caddick six”, “shoulders” – pedestrian phrases made remarkable by the weight of collective and personal memory contained in them. It was a reminder of something that has gone out of our lives – not just Sachin himself, but the idea of a nation in unison, all of us chanting, praying, sitting in our lucky seats and not moving.

“We will never again agree on anything as we agreed on Elvis,” Lester Bangs wrote in a 1977 tribute. In 2011, I’d have extended this analogy to Sachin. Now, I’m not sure people still believe that we ever agreed on him. In these times of sub-tweeting and op-eds written in reaction to other op-eds, the idea of a universally held view on anything seems antiquated. I’ll end, therefore, on a personal note. Objectively speaking, Sachin: A Billion Dreams is safe, sentimental and saccharine. I was nevertheless thrilled by it. The heart wants what it wants.

This review appeared in Mint.

Half Girlfriend: Review

If this review of Half Girlfriend seems to fixate on matters of plot, it’s only because there isn’t much else to write about. Mohit Suri makes a particular type of film—full of rain, pain and emotional strain— but, from moment to moment, scene to scene, he isn’t the most imaginative of directors. Nor are Shraddha Kapoor or Arjun Kapoor captivating actors; the latter, in particular, has always struck me as one of the most reluctant performers in Hindi cinema. The only source of slight interest lies in seeing what happens to the characters in this film, and how they express themselves.

Expression—or the lack of it—is at the heart of this story. From the moment Madhav (Arjun Kapoor) steps onto the St. Stephen’s College campus, he’s on the back foot. The film wastes no time in making its central point—Hindi-speaking persons in the predominantly English world of higher education are often judged unfairly. This is, of course, true; you’d need a film at least a couple of degrees subtler and smarter to make a societal truth this evident un-didactic and dramatically satisfying. But in the world of Half Girlfriend, there are few half-measures. Both sides are caricatured: Madhav’s friends speak Bihari Hindi and are therefore crass; the English speakers are wealthy and insufferable.

However, if you speak both English and Hindi, you apparently have a shot at being a decent person. There’s a nice moment when Madhav, who’s besotted with Riya (Shraddha Kapoor) from when he first lays eyes on her, finds out she can speak Hindi; his relief is so pronounced I half-expected the soundtrack to break into a sitar taan of the sort used to indicate emotional release in 1950s films. In no time, the two of them become close; they kiss, and Madhav—not unreasonably—wonders if she’s become something more the label she’d given herself: a “half girlfriend”.

Even if you haven’t read the Chetan Bhagat novel that’s the source for Half Girlfriend, you may have heard about the contentious scene that arrives some 80 pages in. Madhav is sitting with his college friends, asking them how he should proceed with Riya. Their advice is to “make Bihar proud”; in short, call Riya to his room, make a move on her, and find out whether “half girlfriend” means “no sex”. This scene is reproduced almost identically in the film. The only dilution is what Madhav says when Riya rebuffs his advances: “Rehti hai toh reh, varna kat le (Either stay, or get lost).” In the book, it’s a cruder “Deti hai to de… (Either put out, or…)”.

The rest of the film seems to exist only to say: “But really, Madhav’s not a bad guy”. He wants to build toilets for female students in a school in his village—an endeavour that’s almost comically virtuous. By the time Riya enters his life again, she’s gotten over the incident in college, and the two of them seem set to walk off into the sunset, a half-Hindi, half-English song on the soundtrack. But this wouldn’t be a Suri film if the path of true love ran smooth. Cue tears, drinking, rain, self-destructive behaviour, more rain, and seven lovingly crooned songs that all sound the same.

Prominent as the Suri trademarks are, Half Girlfriend is very much a Chetan Bhagat film. All the markers of the man—the anti-intellectualism, the perfumed reek of good intentions, the ability to grind down complex issues into bite-size chunks of positivity—are present. “Madhav Jha is not a name. Madhav Jha is an attitude,” we’re told at one point. It’s surprising this line isn’t in the book: it has the sort of management-institute facileness that suits the author’s style perfectly.

This review appeared in Mint.

That show you like is coming back in style

In the summer of 1990, David Lynch, who had seduced and shocked America four years earlier with his film Blue Velvet, launched a TV series set in the fictional north-western town of Twin Peaks. The series, which he co-created with Mark Frost, and which centred on an investigation into the rape and murder of a local girl named Laura Palmer, was an eccentric mix of police procedural, soap-opera melodrama and a dozen other subgenres. Fans of Lynch’s movies had grown somewhat used to his kookiness and psychosexual predilections; TV audiences, though, had never seen anything quite like Twin Peaks before. There was a short (and brilliant) first season, and a long (and uneven) second one, before ABC decided to discontinue the series. What followed was a quarter-century of deep, profound influence.

Twin Peaks didn’t just pre-date Peak TV—the overwhelming glut of original TV content—it helped create it. Lynch was a TV auteur before Vince Gilligan or Matthew Weiner or David Milch, and the risks he took paved the way for their rise a decade later. The X-Files borrowed from Twin Peaks a showrunner (Frost), cast members (David Duchovny; memorable as a transgender DEA agent) and an elliptical approach to mystery-solving. In an interview with Vulture, writer-director David Chase spoke about the show’s influence on The Sopranos, and the arty aesthetic and strangely spiritual quality that set it apart from everything else on TV in the early 1990s. Damon Lindelof, too, has stated categorically that there would have been no The Leftovers or Lost (which he co-created with J.J. Abrams) without Twin Peaks.

Over the years, this show has been deconstructed, mined and assimilated. Breaking Bad borrowed its brand of surrealism, Fargo its combination of small-town charm and menace, Lost its supernatural tendencies. Even minute details from it have been appropriated: The show’s tag line, “Who killed Laura Palmer?”, was turned into “Who killed Rosie Larsen?” on The Killing. In fact, so many shows are accused of having it in their DNA that Vulture could run—with more or less a straight face—a piece titled “A Brief History Of TV Shows Being Compared To Twin Peaks”. Several shows actively boast of the influence of the series: It’s an easy way to signal to a discerning audience that your show is ambitious, or unsettling, or weird. Donald Glover has described his ambitious comedy Atlanta as “Twin Peaks with rappers”.

Season 2 of Twin Peaks had ended with a dream sequence in which Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) tells Agent Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) that she’ll see him in 25 years. This prophecy has, in proper Lynchian fashion, come true. This week, Twin Peaks is back as a Showtime series, with Frost and Lynch in charge. Lynch will direct all 18 episodes; MacLachlan will return, along with original cast members, including Sherilyn Fenn, Russ Tamblyn, Mädchen Amick and Harry Goaz, and several new recruits (Laura Dern, Tim Roth, Naomi Watts). Plot details have been closely guarded, though a teaser with the shot of Laura’s corpse from the original series and the words “It’s happening again” suggests that there might be another crime and investigation.

For fans of the series, the prospect of a continuing story is thrilling—and a little unnerving. Arrested Development came back after a gap of seven years; it wasn’t quite the same. The X-Files was revived after 14 years, and encountered a viewing public that had moved on. “The giddiness that accompanies news of a beloved show returning from the grave has an edge of desperation to it,” wrote Ian Crouch in the New Yorker when the news of Twin Peaks’ return was confirmed. “The thrill itself is death-haunted.”

Maybe it’s natural to feel conflicted. It’s worth noting that despite its now canonical status, critics weren’t uniformly enamoured by the show in 1990. After the first season, John Leonard wrote the New York magazine cover article which concluded that the show had “nothing at all in its pretty little head except the desire to please”. Yet, earlier in the piece, Leonard included a loving laundry list of Lynch attributes: “…the sinister fluidity, the absurd detail, the shocking relief, the elegant gesture, the deadpan jokes, the painterly pointillism, the bad puns, the erotic violence, the lingering close-up camera, the rampaging of non-sequiturs, the underlining and italicizing of emotions….” Come Sunday, we’ll begin to know if we get all, or some, or none of the above—whether, to use a line from the show, that gum we like has actually come back in style or not.

This piece appeared in Mint Lounge.

Meri Pyaari Bindu: Review

Meri Pyaari Bindu opens with an image out of Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita—a giant statue of Durga borne over the city by helicopter—and incorporates, towards the end, a version of the “Why is life worth living?” speech in Woody Allen’s Manhattan. What’s in between, though, is pure 2010s Bollywood romance: boy meets girl, they become fast friends, interfere in each other’s love lives and spend most of the film not getting together.

Akshay Roy’s film—his first full-length feature—is an amiable entry in the friendship vs love subgenre. If you’re looking for the kind of emotional scalding supplied by Karan Johar’s Ae Dil Hai Mushkil or Imtiaz Ali’s Tamasha, you won’t find it here. The characters in this film rebound from romantic disappointment within a few scenes, unlike, say, Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, where their disappointment becomes the entire film. Sure, there’s a Devdas in Roy’s film, but it’s a dog.

Abhimanyu (Ayushmann Khurrana) and Bindu (Parineeti Chopra) are childhood friends, inseparable ever since she moved in next door to his Kolkata home. They listen to old Hindi film songs, make mixtapes together, prank each other. He’s in love with her, but not to the point that he can’t function on his own; she’s unwilling to relinquish his presence in her life, but doesn’t seem to want to address the implications of this. Abhimanyu describes their relationship as the LOC between love and friendship, but, save for a few scenes, the film doesn’t bring out the emotional artillery, opting instead for a wry almost-there-but-not-quite love story.

Much like Band Baaja Baaraat (Bindu producer Maneesh Sharma’s first film) was a love letter to west Delhi, Roy’s film is elevated by its affection for Kolkata. Much of the film unfolds there, and screenwriter Suprotim Sengupta uses Bengali tropes—bookishness, mothers doting on sons—to wonderful comic effect. It’s also great to see, in an age when song choreography in Hindi cinema is fast becoming a forgotten art, tribute paid to two classic sequences: "Mere Sapno Ki Rani" from Aradhana, and "Meri Pyaari Bindu" from Padosan. Bindu comes on very manic pixie in the first hour, but Chopra finds a measure of pathos in her romantic indecision as the film progresses. Khurrana, who’s played prickly very well in the past, gets to be straightforwardly charming here; it’s a shame that someone with an onscreen manner this confident remains, five years after his debut, underutilized by Hindi cinema.

Meri Pyaari Bindu ends on an intriguing note, at once messy and fitting. But is this enough? I can imagine little details lingering on—Aparajita Adhya mining comic gold as a doting mother; Abhimanyu admitting that he remembers “every comma, every full stop” of a letter Bindu wrote him—but not the film itself. It’s the law of mixtapes: the whole is always less than the sum of the parts.

This review appeared in Mint.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2: Review

There are many ways to grab a viewer’s attention at the start of a film. A song might do the trick, or a sudden burst of action. Myself, I’m always drawn in by a good one-take. When Orson Welles decided to shoot the first scene of Touch of Evil, with the car and the ticking bomb, without a cut, he gave us not just one of the great single-takes of all time, but arguably the best opening sequence ever. One-takes may have become easier to pull off with digital cameras and CGI, but it still takes a fair amount of skill and sheer love of cinema to execute what Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 does right at the start: a long, unbroken take of baby Groot dancing to ELO’s "Mr Blue Sky", while the other Guardians battle a gigantic space monster in the background.

Second films in Hollywood franchises often explore the idea of the central unit developing cracks. But the Guardians were cracked to begin with, and, having spent the first film exploring these fissures, writer-director James Gunn wisely avoids this approach. Instead, the Guardians—Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), Drax (Dave Bautista) and Groot (who’s growing again from a little sapling, but is nevertheless voiced by Vin Diesel)—find conflict brewing not within the group but within themselves. Quill has father issues, Gamora has sister issues (or, to be more accurate, Gamora’s sister, Nebula (Karen Gillan), has issues), Drax still misses his dead wife and daughter, and Rocket is running out of ways to camouflage the rage and despair within.

Cornered by drones belonging to the Sovereigns—a gold-skinned race led by Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki), who looks like the evil bot from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis—the Guardians are rescued at the last second by Ego (Kurt Russell), a Celestial (how can you dislike a film that sounds like a battle of ’50s doo wop bands?). Ego then reveals himself as Peter’s long-lost father. He hosts Gamora, Drax and Peter on his idyllic home planet, and encourages his son to embrace his own Celestial powers. I won’t reveal any more, suffice to say that the film ambles contentedly past the halfway mark without a worthy antagonist in sight.

You could argue that Guardians 2 ignores narrative highways for byways and its A-plot for B-, C- and D-plots. This isn’t incorrect, but it’s also much easier to sit back and watch Drax and Rocket and Yondu (Michael Rooker) trash-talk each other than be subjected to the insufferable banter of the Avengers. In the often self-serious world of comic book movies, the Guardians are an easy hang. Perhaps this is why, when Gunn introduces unexpected beats—like filial abuse or child trafficking—the impact is that much keener.

Having emerged as a surprise MVP in part one, the compulsively literal Drax is the prime comic anchor here. Bautista does very well, even if the device wears thin. The most striking performances, though, come from Gillan and Rooker, who find surprising pathos in their one-dimensional villains from the first film. It might be overstuffed, it may meander and stall at times, but Guardians 2 should delight returning audiences, Michael Rooker fans, and anyone savvy enough to appreciate Cheap Trick, Sam Cooke and Jay and the Americans.

This review appeared in Mint. 

Netflix breaks into Cannes

On 13 April, the line-up for the Cannes Film Festival was announced. It was revealed that the Competition section would include Michael Haneke’s Happy End, Michel Hazanavicius’ Redoubtable, Hong Sang-soo’s Clair’s Camera, Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Killing Of A Sacred Deer and Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled—titles which had featured in IndieWire’s “50 Films That Have A Serious Shot At The 2017 Line-up”. That list also included Okja, by Korean director Bong Joon-ho, of which IndieWire wrote: “Netflix is scheduled to unleash the film on June 28, which makes Cannes the ideal platform—if the festival can get over its alleged resistance to Netflix.”

The reasons for this alleged resistance are evident. Unlike Amazon (described by Cannes festival director Thierry Frémaux last year as “good for cinema”), which gives its films a proper theatrical run before releasing them online, Netflix’s policy is to release the film online the day it lands in theatres (which is seldom). This would pretty much destroy the idea of exclusivity that comes with a Cannes selection. Instead of waiting for the title to arrive months later via a festival or a repertory house, viewers around the world may be able to see it along with or, even more gallingly, before the audiences at Cannes. L’horreur!

Cannes’ misgivings about the streaming giant appear to have been overcome, or have at least been kept aside for the time being. Okja and Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories will be the first films distributed by Netflix to be in Competition at Cannes. Having bitten the bullet, Frémaux has been neatly sidestepping pointed questions about Netflix. “I chose Bong Joon-ho’s film because he’s a very good film-maker,” he told the ScreenDaily website. “I hardly spoke to Netflix.” And he told Variety: “The film world is like a big community and in this big community, everyone has a place to exist. We are happy that at Cannes, this discussion (about Netflix and digital versus theatrical distribution of films) can unfold.”

Netflix chief executive officer Ted Sarandos may well have heaved a sigh of relief after the Cannes line-up was announced. The year 2016 didn’t have any Netflix films in the line-up—Amazon had five—but that was still better than 2015, when Sarandos found himself in the midst of a chilly Q&A session after he delivered an address at the festival. Asked whether he would release Netflix subscriber figures, Sarandos said, “I’m sorry to disappoint you.” “I was expecting it,” the journalist responded. Things deteriorated swiftly from there. Someone asked, “Are you aware that in five, 10 years you will destroy the current ecosystem of film production in Europe?” This prompted Harvey Weinstein, co-founder of Miramax, a central figure in the last industry-altering movement before Netflix—the 1990s independent film boom—to jump in and defend Sarandos.

Exhibitors in Europe and the US have grown increasingly wary of Netflix, which has shown little interest in the idea of a traditional release “window” (a theatre release, then DVD, and then streaming). Days after the Cannes announcement, the National Federation of French Cinemas criticized the move, calling on Netflix to confirm that these films would get a theatrical release (recent reports suggest they might get a limited arthouse theatre release). Jean Labadie, president of French distributor Le Pacte, accused Netflix of promoting “the death of the theaters”—streaming services in France are supposed to wait for 36 months after the theatrical release; the window is 90 days in the US. Last year, the National Association of Theatre Owners in the US expressed concern over Netflix’s deal with luxury-theatre chain iPic Entertainment, which would allow simultaneous online and theatrical releases of its films.

For indie and arthouse directors who aren’t militant about their film being seen “the way it’s supposed to be”, there are obvious advantages to the Netflix model: upfront payment, and an exponentially larger (potential) audience. But for those with no financial or artistic stake in the film production business, the question is simple: How much do you value the big-screen experience? In India, which has just a handful of international film festivals and virtually no repertory houses, the debate is largely moot—we’ll take world cinema anywhere we can get it. But what about when the new Martin Scorsese film, The Irishman (which Netflix is distributing), comes around? Will it release in theatres at all? And even if it does, does it matter to you whether you watch it online or in a theatre?

This piece appeared in Mint Lounge. 

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.