Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Gold: Review


There’s a line repeated four times over the course of Reema Kagti’s new film which posits that India winning gold in hockey at the 1948 London Olympics would mean “do sau saal ki ghulami ka badla (200 years of slavery avenged)”. The first person to say it is Tapan Das (Akshay Kumar), a sports official consumed with the idea of India winning at the Olympics as an independent nation (three previous hockey golds had gone to British India). The third is Tapan’s wife, who tells the Buddhist monks helping her cook for the team: “Don’t think that you’re just preparing food – you’re taking revenge for 200 years of slavery.”

Even in these divided times, perhaps we can all agree that the cooking of patta gobhi isn’t any kind of blow against the empire. It’s been a patriotic few years for Hindi cinema (and India in general), and Gold isn’t the first film to go overboard professing its nation-love. Gold begins with the 1936 Berlin Olympics. As the Indian players leave the stadium after a game, two young men break from the crowd and try to raise the Swaraj flag. In the ensuing confusion, Tapan, who’s on the team staff, grabs the flag and stuffs it under his coat. The flag makes a cameo when India, captained by the brilliant Samrat (Kunal Kapoor) – a stand-in for Dhyan Chand – wins the final. But you’d best believe its big dramatic moment comes later in the film.

It’s 1946, and Tapan is a down-on-his-luck alcoholic reduced to influencing punters at wrestling matches. The news that India is planning to send a hockey team to the London Games – the 1940 and ‘44 Olympics were cancelled because of the war – gives him some purpose in life, and he talks the higher-ups into allowing him to scout for players. After Samrat tells him that his playing days are over, Tapan brings in another player from 1936, Imtiaz (Vineet Kumar Singh), as captain. Younger players are recruited as well, including Raghubir Pratap Singh (Amit Sadh), of the Balrampur royal family, and Sikh village boy Himmat Singh (Sunny Kaushal), set on a collision course by an early musical number which cross-cuts between their respective childhoods.

Gold is a change of scale for Reema Kagti, who directed the ensemble drama Honeymoon Travels Pvt. Ltd and the noir thriller Talaash. Kagti, who also wrote this film, can certainly whip up a set-piece – the party song “Monobina” has a lusty energy reminiscent of “Gallan Goodiyaan” from Dil Dhadakne Do, which she co-wrote. The lighting and framing (cinematography by Álvaro Gutiérrez) is fetching, as it was in Talaash. Some of the period detail is wonderful; for instance, when Tapan is still a wrestling tout, one of the fighters is Stanislaus Zbyszko, a legendary grappler who acted in the 1950 film Night and the City. But Gold can only hint at the religious and class divides in the Indian team at the time, though they must have been an issue so soon after Partition. And the film is robbed of both pace and intelligence by its tendency to over-explain.

Film-maker Ernst Lubitsch once said that the audience need only be given two and two; they’ll come up with four themselves and appreciate you for it. Kagti gives the viewer two, two, four, and a calculator. You see this in the scene where Samrat (who’s been brought in to coach the new team) tells Tapan and Raghubir about his favourite moment as a player – the time he drew a bunch of opposition players, who were all man-marking him, into a corner of the field and then passed to a free teammate, resulting in the game’s only goal. Now, we’ve already been shown several times that Raghubir won’t pass the ball to his teammates, so the import of this scene is perfectly clear. But Tapan hammers on, telling Raghubir that the most important player isn’t the goal-scorer but the one whose actions result in the goal being scored. The story itself is a nice idea, but that extra beat, that crucial unwillingness to trust the viewer, reveals the film’s insecurities.

For a 150-minute sports film, Gold spends surprisingly little time on the field. And when we do get to see hockey being played, it’s perfunctory – all quick cutting and close-ups. We’re offered little by way of tactics or individual skills; the only specific thing we know about any of these players is that Raghubir doesn’t like to pass. As a result, the different matches have no distinct personality, unlike, say, the ones in Chak De! India, or the bouts in Dangal. There’s a lone moment of inspiration, borrowed from a famous Indian victory in another sport, but for the most part this film is less concerned about hockey than the politics that accompanied it.

Even as the quality of the writing ranges up and down, the cast is consistent and winning. Vineet Singh brings a weary dignity to his role as the Indian, then Pakistani, captain; Kunal Kapoor is relaxed and charismatic; and Sunny Kaushal is riveting as the young hothead who’s a softie when he’s with his girlfriend. Akshay Kumar is almost defeated by a thick Bengali accent and half-a-dozen drunken scenes; his lead turn is respectable – as most of his performances have been in the last couple of years – but I wish Kagti and Kumar had done more to lay bare the psychology of Tapan, an incurable optimist and a bit of a clown, who’s thrown into a downward spiral whenever he’s kept from serving his country.

Yes, the national anthem is played in the film, and yes, everyone in the audience save for a few ungrateful critics stood up. I wouldn’t want to deny anyone their performative patriotism, but I’m not sure what it says about where we are as a nation that a theatre-full of thinking adults watched the final scenes of a film on their feet like it’s a perfectly natural thing to do.

This review appeared in Mint.

How India watched herself in 1967

In 1967, S.N.S. Sastry took a routine government assignment and turned it into one of the great Indian short films. The country had been independent for 20 years, and the government—through Films Division, its newsreels and documentary wing—was looking to play up the occasion. Sastry responded with a 19-minute short, powered by a supercharged score by Vijay Raghava Rao, featuring a cross-section of young people born in 1947: 20-year-olds on their 20-year-old nation. But instead of playing like state propaganda, I Am 20 is anything but straightforwardly celebratory.

I Am 20 is one of a handful of Films Division shorts made in 1967 to coincide with the 20th anniversary of independence. These are available to view on YouTube, and are a precious window to how ordinary Indians regarded their country back then, and how the film-makers chose to present their views. It’s somewhat of a shock to hear, in I Am 20, a young man state matter-of-factly that he doesn’t have any love for his country (this is preceded by a pilot saying that India means everything to him). It’s difficult to imagine a sentiment like this turning up in any film today, let alone a government-funded one.

Sastry’s interviewees come from a variety of backgrounds and have markedly different world-views. There’s the young man whose ambition is to appear for the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) and be “a cog in the wheel”; the girl who says she was married at 8; the tractor-driving man who says he only splurges on movies. As with a few other Films Division shorts of that time, you get the feeling Sastry is slipping incendiary material past the authorities without them noticing. When one of the subjects talks optimistically about India’s future, saying that the average man has a “capacity to work”, Sastry intercuts between a labourer dragging a heavy cart down a street with shots of better off people in comfortable offices. The idea, unspoken, is that there’s a long way to go.

Sastry was the master of the deflating edit. He even casts a baleful eye on himself. When the IAS aspirant is asked about India’s progress over 20 years, he responds, “Of course we’ve made progress, the kind you show us in your documentary films.”

Face To Face (1967), credited to 20 directors (including future adman Alyque Padamsee), is another assemblage of state-of-the-nation interviews interspersed with scenes from around India. It’s less subversive than I Am 20, but just as clear-sighted. “No clothes, no food, nowhere to live, and you talk of democracy,” a woman in rural Bihar says bitterly. “A hundred years of slavery, it will take at least 50-60 years to remove that,” a taxi driver reasons. Another asks, in English, “Don’t you think India is flop, and getting flopper day by day?” The final words, courtesy a woman from Bengaluru, are poignant, considering the Emergency is only a few years away. “Freedom of speech is the most precious gift of Indian democracy,” she says. “In the end, it will justify the trust.”

It’s not like the government wasn’t putting out propaganda through Films Division—S.M. Junnarkar’s Two Decades is a feel-good summary of India’s achievements since it gained freedom. But they also let through Indian Youth: An Exploration. This early documentary by Shyam Benegal comes alive in its section on student politics in 1967. Over still photographs of burning buses and lathi-wielding cops, a voice says, “The violence in this country is not because of a lack of talent but because of a frustration of talent.”

In the Films Division titles of 1967, we can see that, though there’s still a general air of possibility, the sheen of independence has worn off somewhat, and young people are pushing against the older order and the system. It’s also clear what a rich time for non-fiction film-making it was. That year, S. Sukhdev (whose splendid hour-long documentary India 67 released in 1968) made the short film And Miles To Go, which contrasts the daily life of the very rich and the destitute. It’s didactic, but fascinating for the variety of filmic tricks Sukhdev throws at the screen: farmers lined up like a 1920s Soviet drama, a cavernous room out of Citizen Kane, a drawn-out climactic montage with statues, drawings, still photographs.

Pramod Pati’s Explorer goes even further. It might be the most anarchic 7 minutes ever committed to film by an Indian director. With its barrage of images—chanting priests, lab experiments, youngsters partying—accompanied by a brilliant electronic score by Vijay Raghav Rao, the film can be read as a comment on India pulled between the old and the new, or simply enjoyed for its surreal energy. Watch carefully, and you’ll see a split-second image that says “F*ck censorship”. It’s as if all the hope and scepticism expressed in I Am 20 has been compressed and released as a blast of pure subversive invention.

This piece appeared in Mint Lounge.

Vishwaroop II: Review

Liam Neeson is three years older than Kamal Haasan. I mention this because when Neeson plays an ex-special-ops-ex-assassin-currently-very-angry-dad, you don’t think, hey, that’s a 66-year-old. But when Haasan plays a superspy in Vishwaroop II, it’s another reminder that this is a country uncommonly indulgent of old, unfit men as action stars.

Kamal Haasan has hinted that this sequel to 2013’s Vishwaroopam will be one of his last films before he gives up cinema entirely for politics. One can only hope that the other swansongs are more flattering. Film can be an unforgiving medium, and the canniest performers understand that you can only cheat the camera when you’re young and beautiful. To see Haasan, with his protruding gut and flabby face and neck, pretend to be Jason Bourne is to realise that some stars are simply too powerful and insulated for even well-wishers to say: this is a probably a bad idea.

In Vishwaroopam, Nirupama (Pooja Kumar), a nuclear oncologist in New York City, finds out that her husband, Vishwanath (Haasan), isn’t a kathak teacher but a RAW agent named Visam Kashmiri. We then learn, through a series of flashbacks, that Visam was once an Al-Qaeda operative in Afghanistan. There, he won the trust of jihadi leader Omar Qureshi (Rahul Bose), a relationship which soured for reasons unknown. These reasons are revealed in Vishwaroop II, which picks up soon after the events of the first film, with Nirupama, Visam and RAW officers Jagannath (a sleepy Shekhar Kapur) and Ashmita (Andrea Jeremiah) on a plane to England, having saved New York from Qureshi’s dirty bomb.

Vishwaroop II was intended to follow on the heels of the first film before it got stuck in development limbo; reports at the time had hinted at a late 2013 release. This makes sense, given how the two films are essentially one long story; it also ties in with interviews Haasan gave in 2013, in which he said that a large chunk of part two had been shot along with the first film. In the sequel, we flash back to the same Afghanistan scenes that played out in Vishwaroopam, except now we’re shown what we always suspected – that Wisam was a undercover agent, helping RAW and the Americans get to Osama bin Laden and Qureshi by posing as an Al-Qaeda operative. Qureshi, who escapes at the end of the first film, vowing revenge, also reappears, wheezier and weirder than he was before.

Haasan has full control over Vishwaroop II – he’s the writer, director, co-producer and star – and yet it keeps getting away from him. The film never settles into a satisfying rhythm: irrelevant scenes are stretched beyond reason and important ones are rushed through (I’m still hazy on the details of the London terror plot). Instead of the terse back-and-forth of Hollywood thrillers, we get scene after scene of exposition, the odd “political” statement (“Musalman hona gunah nahi hai” – It’s not a sin to be Muslim), and some awful banter from Ashmita (who once had a crush on Wisam) and Nirupama (who wants to jump her husband, now that she knows he isn’t gay).

The other problem – a potentially debilitating one for an action film, except this is India – is that the set-pieces look ridiculous. This is mostly because Haasan is no action star, and has to be shielded by cutting up the scene till it’s all but incoherent. The grisliness of the violence is emphasised: we’re shown arms twisted back at unnatural angles, necks snapped, fresh bullet holes, a wound squirting blood, all manner of knifings, a severed head. It’s as if the extreme nature of the violence is meant to show how grown-up this world is, but all it does is underline the cartoonish nature of the enterprise, like a cheesy old Kung Fu movie where someone’s eye is pulled out but he goes on fighting anyway.

As audience surrogate Nirupama, Kumar gamely offers comic relief, as does Bose, though that couldn’t have been his, or the director’s, intention (an antagonist who’s being laughed at constantly isn’t serving the film well). But the focus is nearly always on Wisam: robotically competent, supercilious and, for a spy, distressingly short on witty rejoinders (“Ashmita, puh-lease,” he says – twice). One scene, with Haasan and Kumar in a hotel room, fairly throbs with his tiredness, the sense of a long innings coming to a close. When she asks him if he’s really hurt or just pretending, he says, with what seems like genuine hurt, “What do you think? All the time – acting?”

There is one touching scene, though. Wisam takes Nirupama to meet his mother (played by Waheeda Rahman), who’s in an old folks’ home in Delhi. On the wall in her room is Haasan’s shrine to himself: photographs from when he was a little boy, from his teenage years, and a familiar matinee-idol portrait. Wisam’s mother, who suffers from Alzheimer’s, mistakes him for a friend of her son’s; she starts telling him how her boy used to be such a talented dancer (Haasan, as a teenager, studied dance). As she reminisces, a song begins, and we’re taken into Wisam’s memories of his childhood. It’s a strange interlude, not affecting in itself but, rather, because we can see how moved Haasan is.

This review appeared in Mint.

Fanney Khan: Review

There’s no good place to start with Fanney Khan, so one may as well begin by asking: What ails Amit Trivedi? There was a time, not so long ago, when he was in Rahman-esque form: Lootera, Queen and Bombay Velvet, three of his best soundtracks, were consecutive releases for him. Yet now he seems adrift. His last notable work was 2016’s Udta Punjab, his trademark anthemic sound has started to grate, and if there’s a worse song this year than his Chumme Mein Chavanprash, I’m yet to hear it.

Last year, Trivedi supplied the soundtrack to Secret Superstar, about a young girl who wants to become a singer but whose efforts are thwarted by her conservative father. His latest collaboration, Atul Manjrekar’s Fanney Khan, also centres on a girl in a middle-class family with dreams of pop stardom in her head. That’s where the similarity ends: Fanney Khan – flamboyant, simplistic, often inane – makes the sober-sided Secret Superstar (which had its own problems balancing sweet and sour notes) look like Bicycle Thieves.

Lata’s (Pihu Sand) problem isn’t an overbearing father – indeed, she probably wishes her dad wouldn’t be so Dangal all the time and dump his unfulfilled dreams on her. Still, her parents are unusually supportive, she sings beautifully, dances, but is repeatedly frustrated because she doesn’t fit the popular image of a svelte superstar. At one talent competition, she’s heckled about her weight; at another, a judge jokes that had her parents named her after PT Usha instead of Lata Mangeshkar, she might have taken up running instead.

Prashant (Anil Kapoor), Lata’s father, a former orchestra singer, loses his job when the factory he works at is shut down. He becomes a cab driver, all the while plotting Lata’s ascent in the music world – he hopes to produce her debut album himself, but that’ll cost upwards of 15 lakh rupees, which is way beyond their means. Then one day, the most popular singer in the country, Baby Singh (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan), steps into his taxi. Does he tell her about Lata? Ask her to listen to a recording of the girl? No, he does what any devoted father would: slip his daughter’s favourite singer water spiked with sleep meds and drive off with her.

What might at one time have passed off as a comical kidnapping ends up a little queasy in the era of #MeToo – another woman drugged and held hostage by a stranger. An emotionally adept actor could have suggested these notes while staying true the comic demands of the script (Manjrekar and his co-writers Hussain Dalal and Abbas Dalal make a clumsy attempt, having Adhir (Rajkummar Rao), Prashant’s friend, tell Baby that they won’t rape her). But Baby doesn’t look particularly angry when she wakes up blindfolded and tied to a chair in an abandoned factory and learns that she’s being held for ransom. Rai is too unruffled a screen presence to convincingly sell the kind of silliness this film requires – for instance, the scene where she rubs herself on a panicked Adhir before sending him out to pick up her dog (this way he’ll smell her on him).

While Secret Superstar and Dangal built up to genuine catharsis, Fanney Khan doesn’t pack the same wallop, possibly because this film is more about Prashant than Lata. Sand has some good moments when she’s telling her father off, but we aren’t privy to Lata’s interior life. And we get a little too much of the singing, shouting, trumpet-playing Prashant, Kapoor selling every single moment so hard it’s wearying. Even Rao can’t rise above this material, though Girish Kulkarni, who plays Baby’s scheming manager, is as creepy as he needs to be.

This is Manjrekar’s first film, which might explain why he seems fascinated by the potentialities of the camera but not always in command of it. There are frequent lingering close-ups that are more uncomfortable than dramatic. In one scene, Manjrekar does the swirling camera movement so beloved of first-time directors and can’t seem to stop. Fanney Khan is a well-meaning feint at the issue of body-shaming and an exhortation to not give up on one’s dreams. Yet, it also shows the yawning chasm between intent and execution into which so many Hindi films fall.

This review appeared in Mint.

Mission: Impossible—Fallout: Review

The Mission: Impossible franchise has been around for six films now, one more than the Antoine Doinel series, in which Jean-Pierre Léaud grew from a young boy to a 30-something man. Mapping out a similar progression with Tom Cruise, who’s played Ethan Hunt in all six films, would be largely pointless. He’s the Dorian Gray of cinema, his face practically unlined at 56, his feet pumping like pistons whenever he launches into the busiest sprint in modern film. A portrait might grow hideous in an attic somewhere, but on screen, Cruise ages only infinitesimally.

Still, it’s understandable that Mission: Impossible—Fallout would, in the scattered moments of calm between its expert, undulating action sequences, turn a little nostalgic. Old characters show up, earlier films in the franchise are referenced. Hunt’s ability to deliver just in the nick of time is brought up several times, both as a source of humour and comfort. Ving Rhames, whose Luther has been the other constant over six films, gets more lines to intone in that unhurried baritone of his than he did in the last few outings. This isn’t a psychologically rich series, but that doesn’t mean these characters haven’t grown on us.

Mission: Impossible films were always twisty and spectacular, but something special happened on the fourth, Brad Bird’s Ghost Protocol (2011), in particular with the Burj Khalifa sequence. In an era where Hollywood action choreography has become simultaneously more extravagant and less involving, here was a man hanging off the side of a very tall building, like Harold Lloyd in Safety Last. Suddenly, Mission: Impossible wasn’t just the best action money could buy, it was also the most fun you could have at the movies (the expanded presence of Simon Pegg from this film helped). This was true of the next film, Rogue Nation (2015), and the latest, both directed by Christopher McQuarrie (who did an uncredited rewrite on Ghost Protocol).

Fallout is so convoluted that I gave up after a while and just accepted each reveal and double-double cross as it came. Hunt loses three plutonium cores sought by a group of terrorists known as The Apostles, led by the shadowy John Lark. There’s a “broker” (Vanessa Kirby, in a witty cameo), a sort of go-between for covert agencies and terror cells, and a minder—in the impossibly buff, incomparably square-jawed form of Henry Cavill—attached to the IMF team by the CIA. And Hunt’s rival/ally from the last film, Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), is back to kill some and confuse the rest. These pieces are endlessly realigned as we move from Belfast to Paris to London to Kashmir, but the central reveal is half-hearted, as if it doesn’t really matter who John Lark is as long as it isn’t Hunt.

Thankfully, all the clarity missing in the plot can be found in the pounding set-pieces. It’s become increasingly rare to see well-cut, non-deceptive action in a Hollywood film, so there is some satisfaction in how Fallout keeps us close to Cruise, whether he’s skydiving or flying a helicopter, but not so close that we can’t make out if it’s a stunt double. There’s a close combat scene in a men’s room, with a lithe Asian man (Liang Yang) almost taking out Cavill and Cruise, which is reminiscent of the John Wick films. But the rest is pure M:I, especially the breathless car/boat/foot chase through Paris, and another on the rooftops of London, a signature frantic Hunt run made funny by his receiving instruction from Benji (Pegg), who’s reading the terrain all wrong on his laptop.

Leave aside the fact that he’s a 56-year-old carrying multiple action franchises, there’s something about Tom Cruise that still gets younger viewers excited in a way they aren’t for Dwayne Johnson or Jason Statham. I think it’s because he’s an analog movie star in a digital age. Audiences are fed so much CGI in their films now that the sight of someone performing real feats, making an honest effort, goes a lot further than it used to.

Dhadak: Review

Dhadak is pretty much the same film as Sairat. Then why does it feel so different? Shashank Khaitan’s film is, in many instances, a scene-for-scene remake of the 2016 Marathi film, but something’s missing—and not just the thrill of first discovery. In Sairat, Nagraj Manjule turned Romeo-and-Juliet clichés on their head through his lyrical, heady direction and by messing with archetypes (one inversion of viewer expectations involved the lower-caste protagonist being played by a fair-skinned actor, and his upper-caste lover by a darker-skinned one). Dhadak, on the other hand, smoothens out the differences.

Midway through a food-guzzling obstacle course, Madhukar (Ishaan Khatter) catches his first glimpse of Parthavi (Janhvi Kapoor). She’s the daughter of hotelier and local politician Ratan Singh (Ashutosh Rana); he’s the son of a restaurant owner—lower down in the social order, but not as visibly, uncomfortably low as the boy’s family in Sairat. Madhukar is instantly besotted, and we get a version of Sairat’s Yad Lagla, following the ecstatic youngster as he leaps into a lake, runs home, washes and changes, rushes to the well where Parthavi is, and jumps in. It’s a faithful reworking, with Ajay-Atul’s fine music given new lyrics by Amitabh Bhattacharya, though somewhat let down at the end by Kapoor’s gaze, vague and unreadable where Rinku Rajguru’s was both unimpressed and keenly appraising.

Madhukar sets about wooing Parthavi—scenes debased by the film’s use of his friend, Purshottam (Shridhar Watsar), significantly shorter than the other characters, as a comic prop. This is the sort of desperate shtick you’d think Indian cinema had given up in the ‘90s, but Khaitan does seem to have a fondness for it, resurrecting the predatory gay figure in Badrinath Ki Dulhania. Here, Purshottam is dressed in a school uniform and sent to profess Madhukar’s love, a scene as head-scratchingly weird as it is offensive.

There was always the danger that Bollywood would play down the caste narrative of Sairat. There are two mentions of caste in Dhadak—both by Madhukar’s father when he warns the boy not to pursue the upper-caste girl. Yet, these do not arise organically from the material as it did in, say, Mukkabaaz, where caste is in the air, in the food. Parthavi’s family doesn’t mention caste at all. The film ends with an intertitle about lives lost to “honour killings”—the same ballpark, perhaps, but a dilution.

Soon, the young lovers are on the run, moving through Mumbai and Nagpur and settling in Kolkata. There they start to build a new life, renting a tiny room, Madhukar working as a waiter, Parthavi as a helpline employee. Khaitan, who captured with some accuracy the rhythms of Uttar Pradesh life and speech in Badrinath Ki Dulhania, fumbles here. Udaipur, a city with delightful wall art, is reduced to a set of tourist clichés: statutes, havelis, TV soap framing and a surfeit of meaningless aerial shots. Most of the dialogue is in Rajasthani-inflected Hindi, though it’s a nice touch when the action moves out of the state and Khaitan allows characters to speak in Marathi and Bengali without providing subtitles, allowing us to share in the isolation of the couple.

Whether by design or not, Dhadak comes to rest on the shoulders of its two leads. Ishaan Khatter, son of actors Rajesh Khattar and Neelima Azeem and half-brother to Shahid Kapoor, was impressively frazzled in Majid Majidi’s Beyond the Clouds. He has less to do in Dhadak but there’s a soulfulness to him that’s at odds with Hindi cinema’s current penchant for bratty, hyperactive onscreen male personas. Janhvi, daughter of the late Sridevi, is a more perplexing proposition—she doesn’t appear uncomfortable in front of the camera, but there’s a blankness that won’t leave her even when she’s emoting furiously. A little guidance might have helped; when she gulps “Kyun kiya mujh se pyaar (Why did you fall in love with me)?” her eyebrows do a little dance—an understandable, if distracting, tic, and an unexpected reminder of her mother, who could work miracles with a raised brow.

Sairat showed that it was possible to highlight caste in a bells-and-whistles commercial film, something Kaala did even more explicitly this year. By replicating the narrative but tossing in caste almost as an afterthought, Dhadak shows the limitations of mainstream Hindi cinema.

This review appeared in Mint.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

100 years of film censorship in India


Film censorship was born of fire. Early film stock had a compound called nitrocellulose, which was used in explosives as guncotton. Mixed with camphor, it became nitrate film—not explosive, but still violently flammable. In 1897, a year and a half after the first ever film screening, a nitrate fire at the Bazar de la Charité in Paris killed 126 people. A spate of similar incidents over the next decade resulted in the world’s first cinematograph legislation being passed in Britain in 1909, to improve safety standards by controlling the issue of cinema licences.

One kind of control led to another. Since the 1909 Act made licences necessary for public screenings, local authorities used this to regulate not just the conditions in which the film would be screened but also the contents of the film itself. After a few confusing years with everyone making up their own rules, the British Board of Film Censors was formed in 1912.

By this time, Indians were not only watching films but also making their own. After dozens of home-grown newsreels and shorts, the first full-length feature, D.G. Phalke’s Raja Harishchandra, released in 1913. In 1917, a Bill introduced in the imperial legislative council noted the “rapid growth in the popularity of cinematograph and increasing number of such exhibitions in India”. It recommended the creation of a law that would ensure both safety and the “protection of the public from indecent or otherwise objectionable representations”. Thus was born the Cinematograph Act of 1918, and, with it, film censorship in India.

A suitable film
The 1918 Act gave the district magistrate (or, in Rangoon, the commissioner of police) the power to issue licences to exhibitors, and the government to appoint inspectors to examine and certify films as “suitable for public exhibition”. It did not, however, mention what the inspectors were to look out for. What a suitable film was—or, at least, what it wasn’t—began to become clearer in 1920, when censor boards were set up in Bombay, Madras, Calcutta and Rangoon (a fifth was established in Lahore in 1927). To judge the appropriateness of films, both local and foreign, for release, these boards adopted a set of rules.

“No generally and rigidly applicable rules of censorship can be laid down.” The general principles of the Bombay Board of Film Censors began with these encouraging words, then proceeded to lay out 43 objectionable subjects (most of them taken verbatim from a famous list compiled by politician T.P. O’Connor for the British censors in 1917). Rules 21 and 22 were key: “Scenes holding up the King’s uniform to contempt or ridicule” and “Subjects dealing with India, in which British or Indian officers are seen in an odious light”. Film-makers were also advised to steer clear of “Gruesome murders and strangulation scenes”, “Unnecessary exhibition of feminine underclothing” and “Indecorous dancing”. No.40—“Confinements”—must have struck Indian directors as grimly ironic; 1920 was the start of the non-cooperation movement, and jails all over the subcontinent were full.

With one eye on the freedom movement, another on the barrage of Axis propaganda, the British government in India ordered a cinematic fact-finding mission. The Indian cinematograph committee (ICC) of 1927-28, chaired by a former Madras high court judge, T. Rangachariar, was the first comprehensive inquiry into movie viewing, censoring and exhibiting habits in the country, and an acknowledgment by the British of cinema’s increasing popularity in India. In 1921, there were an estimated 148 movie halls in India; by 1927, this number had doubled. Despite Hollywood films accounting for roughly 80% of the shows in those early years, it was the Indian titles which really got the public going. In its report, the committee said: “The crowds which flock to witness a popular Indian film (and many of them are popular) are really remarkable.”

The ICC’s sensible suggestions—setting up a central board of censors, a system of appeals, classifying titles as U and A—were not put into practice, a fate which would befall other painstakingly compiled reports on Indian cinema in the years to come. Still, the report and its attendant documents are a fascinating snapshot of Indian movie-going in the 1920s, with interviewees ranging from Phalke to Lala Lajpat Rai (didn’t like Charlie Chaplin) and M.K. Gandhi (didn’t like cinema). The responses testify to the hold cinema had over viewers in this country—that unique ability to transport, to transfix and to linger on—even before the introduction, in 1931, of sound, and with it, the signature genre of Indian cinema: the musical. “The Picture House possesses all the attractions of real life,” a Lucknow judge, Bhagwat Prasad, wrote to the ICC. “We find ourselves in the midst of people in the screen and become interested in them. Our tears for their sorrows and our delight at the successes are immediately called forth. The effect which is produced in our minds is instantaneous and it is not soon effaced.”

No politics, please
Despite the long list of objectionable subjects, Indian cinema wasn’t exactly prurient in the 1920s and 1930s. Hamarun Hindustan (1930) had an intimate scene with Sulochana and Jal Merchant. Film-maker J.B.H. Wadia recalled, years after the fact, Lalita Pawar kissing her co-star “without inhibition” in a film, and Jal Merchant and Zubeida “kissing each other quite often” in 1932’s Zarina (depending on which account you read, Zarina had a total of 34, 48 or 82 kisses). Actors kiss in the Franz Osten-directed Shiraz (1928) and A Throw Of Dice (1929). And there’s the famous kiss in Karma (1933), which has gone down in legend as being 4 minutes long, though it lasts only a minute and involves a snake and a tearful Devika Rani trying to bring a comatose Himanshu Rai to life.


The British had bigger problems than a few onscreen kisses. “The main preoccupation of the British censor was not the passionate love scenes then common in Indian cinema but the threat of communal discord and the expression of nationalistic sentiments,” Suresh Chabria writes in Light Of Asia: Indian Silent Cinema, 1912-1934. Mentioning British excesses, the Indian National Congress, self-governance, or even revolution in other countries (Juarez, a 1939 Hollywood film about the fight for self-rule in 1860s Mexico, was forbidden by the Bengal censors) was enough to earn your film a cut or a ban. “It’s a strange phenomenon which we find in this country to see the Government-sponsored Indian News Parade claiming to give all the news to the Indian people while the Censors black-out the Nation’s beloved leaders who make the most news,” cine-journal Filmindia complained in 1945, noting that even framed photographs of national leaders were cut from films.

Then there was the ultimate taboo: Gandhi. Listed in the Journal Of The Motion Picture Society Of India (1937) are the titles of banned newsreels—Mahatma Gandhi’s Historic March, Gandhi Sees The King, Bombay Welcomes Mahatma Gandhi, Mahatma Gandhi After his Release, and several others—short non-fiction reports that the British clamped down on. In fact, Gandhi was the hidden subject of the first film to be banned in India. The protagonist of Bhakta Vidur (1921)—with his Gandhi cap, Khadi clothes and spinning wheel—was deemed, quite rightly, to be a stand-in for the Mahatma. Thyagabhoomi (1939) met the same fate; in The Encyclopaedia Of Indian Cinema, it’s mentioned that the Tamil film had documentary inserts of the leader, and that protagonist Sambhu Sastry “is portrayed as the Gandhi of Tamil Nadu, sitting on a dais spinning with a charkha”.

It wasn’t just a case of official paranoia over newsreels, then shown before all feature film screenings. Indian fiction film directors were finding ways to talk about the ongoing freedom struggle without mentioning it directly. "Door Hato O Duniyawalo", the hit musical number from Kismet (1943), is ostensibly a warning to the Germans and the Japanese, but the actual target is clearly the British. In a 1970 interview, writer-director K.A. Abbas mentions historical films like Umaji Naik (1926) and Swarajya Toran (1930), which replaced the British with other invading forces, and social films like Wrath (1930) and Apna Ghar (1942), which spoke in a kind of code to Indian viewers. “There was ferment all over the country,” Abbas recalls, “and it was reflected in the arts and the cinema.”


In the 1940s, the policing of Indian cinema grew more stringent. Out of 1,774 films seen by the Bombay censors in 1943, 25 required modification before they could be released; that number went up to 464 (out of 3,099) by 1948. Through the Film Inquiry Committee report submitted to the government in 1951, we get a picture of what censorship was like in the years leading up to, and just after, independence. Things were, to put it mildly, chaotic. The five censor boards examined films separately, and each had their own set of rules and local pressures. Often, a title passed by one would be rejected by another. In addition, the government—of India, or of a particular state—might deny a certificate to a film passed by the censors, a fate which could befall a noir (The Postman Always Rings Twice, 1946) or a war film (All Quiet On The Western Front, 1930) as easily as it could a propaganda newsreel (Inside Nazi Germany, 1938).

This was also the decade that saw the disappearance of the kiss from Indian cinema—a curtailment so long and stifling that it hasn’t fully returned yet. Crucially, this wasn’t due to a change in censor rules, but because of a societal shift towards moral caution and “Indian” values. In film critic and historian B.D. Garga’s words, “Kissing disappeared from the Indian screen not because of a fiat of the censor but because of pressures brought on by social and religious groups.” It was a sign that film censorship in free India would depend not only on official sanction but on societal approval.

One board to rule them all
In the Bombay Calling column in the February 1949 issue of Filmindia, Baburao Patel praised, in his combative way, a recent development. “We have been asking for this for the last 15 years,” he wrote of the move to centralize film censorship, before suggesting the puritanical Morarji Desai as a possible chairman. Over the next few years, a Central Board of Film Censors (CBFC, renamed as Central Board of Film Certification in 1983) was set up, regional boards were abolished, and U and A were adopted as certification categories.

The scrapping of the 1931 Indian Press (Emergency Powers) Act after independence effectively abolished newspaper pre-censorship in India. Yet, as Arpan Banerjee notes in his essay Political Censorship And Indian Cinematographic Laws: A Functionalist-liberal Analysis, there was no corresponding move to free cinema of that restriction. “The Act of 1918 was repealed, but it was later replaced with a law not dissimilar in scope,” he writes. This was the Cinematograph Act of 1952, the cornerstone—and, in many ways, the millstone—of film censorship in India.

The 1952 Cinematograph Act sets out the structure of censorship as it stands today: the chairperson at the top, then the board members, then the advisory panels (members of the initial examining committee and the revising committee, which do much of the actual examination of films, are drawn from these). Everyone, from the chairperson down to the advisory panel members, is a government appointee. And every government at the Centre has taken advantage of this, staffing the CBFC with party loyalists eager to make cuts and deny certificates to films critical of the establishment. The Emergency saw the most blatant use of this power, with Gulzar’s Aandhi (1975) and Amrit Nahata’s Kissa Kursi Ka (1977) banned, and Shyam Benegal’s Nishant (1975) stuck in a bureaucratic tangle, because they were perceived as critical of the Congress government.


What makes the Cinematograph Act such a problematic piece of legislation? In short, it gives the CBFC—technically, a certification body—vague and vast powers to play censor. The crux is Section 5B of the Act, which states that any film that is against the “interests of [the sovereignty and integrity of India] the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality, or involves defamation or contempt of court or is likely to incite the commission of any offence” can be denied a certificate. It further asks the government to frame rules according to which the CBFC will function.

These guidelines, which have only increased in number over the years, make for depressing reading. Censors are tasked with ensuring that films provide “clean and healthy entertainment” and do not “deprave the morality of the audience”—instructions broad and stodgy enough to cover anything from a raised middle finger to an orgy. Many of the rules that the CBFC can cite to demand cuts are the same as those followed before independence (no endangering of public order, no depicting the modus operandi of criminals)—which gives one an idea of how archaic our censorship mindset is.

Not all these rules are followed to the letter; if they were, hardly any films would make it to theatres. But they exist, vague and convenient, and that is enough. No Central government has made serious attempts to change them, because they are so useful. You cannot release a film in theatres without a CBFC certificate. And you can’t get a certificate without having a government-appointed body passing judgement on your film.

Taking censorship to court
In his early days as a critic, K.A. Abbas pushed for the censure of blithely racist Hollywood films like Gunga Din (“It is not enough even if we manage to get the film banned in India,” he wrote in 1939). It’s somewhat ironic, then, that he was the one person (until an attempt by Amol Palekar last year) to challenge the idea of pre-censorship in court. In 1968, Abbas—already well-known as the screenwriter of Awara and Shree 420—made a 16-minute documentary, Char Shahar Ek Kahani, which had scenes showing prostitution in Mumbai. The CBFC’s examining committee handed the film an “A” certificate; after Abbas protested, the revising committee reached the same conclusion. After a fruitless appeal to the Central government, Abbas petitioned the Supreme Court, arguing that pre-censorship was antithetical to freedom of speech and expression.

The court ruled against Abbas. “The censorship imposed on the making and exhibition of films is in the interests of society,” said the judgement, though it also asked Parliament and the government to do more to separate the objectionable from the socially valuable. Though Abbas’ suit was probably doomed from the start, it did have one useful fallout: the formation, in 1981, of the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal (FCAT), a quasi-judicial body headed by a retired high court judge, which one could approach if unhappy with the decision of the CBFC’s examining and revising committees.

This is pretty much where things stand today. There have been some minor developments in the years since—films must now carry no-smoking advisories, and it’s almost impossible to shoot a scene with a live animal. In addition to the ever-arbitrary demands of the board—a blurred brassiere here, a bleeped “virgin” there—censorship by mob has emerged as a disturbing issue. Bal Thackeray demanding his own cuts in Mani Ratnam’s Bombay in 1995 and the Shiv Sena’s protests against Deepa Mehta’s Fire in 1998 have acted as a blueprint for violent political groups, which have threatened the makers of films from Ae Dil Hai Mushkil to Padmaavat into deleting scenes and delaying releases. Though most directors, writers and actors today are affected by censorship, the film community—especially Bollywood—has shown little willingness to band together on the issue. “Bollywood does not care,” director Dibakar Banerjee says, “because it knows it will somehow navigate through the bureaucratic red tape to survive. It’s a vestige of the licence raj.”

Hope seemed to surge through the film world when Shyam Benegal was appointed head of a committee to look into censorship in 2016. Those who greeted this as a stepping stone to dismantling censorship were probably unaware that there was a similar committee in 2013 under Justice Mukul Mudgal, whose report made many of the suggestions that the Benegal one did—and which was never implemented. Or that, back in 1969, a committee headed by G.D. Khosla, and counting amongst its members K.A. Abbas, Umashankar Joshi and R.K. Narayan, recommended an autonomous, independent censor board. Letting important reports gather dust is a time-honoured tradition for an opaque bureaucracy like India’s, something that the 83-year-old Benegal seems to have made peace with. When I met him at his office in Tardeo, Mumbai, he said: “I have no idea how much (of the report) has been accepted. I have reminded them any number of times until I’ve lost interest in it.”

In an interview to The Hindu in January 2002, Vijay Anand, director of Guide and Jewel Thief and the CBFC chief at the time, was asked whether the media was right to pick on the board’s decisions. “Why not?” he replied. “We are the visible mouthpiece of a moralistic society.” This is an uncomfortably honest self-assessment, but there’s some truth to the idea that the board, whether headed by Anand or Leela Samson or Pahlaj Nihalani, isn’t entirely to blame. Film censorship in India can only be fixed if the rules governing it are overhauled. This, in turn, means changing an attitude that has persisted since the days of the British: the tendency to treat the viewer as incapable. Every week, movie-watchers across the country make hard decisions—to go by the review in the morning paper or by their neighbour’s thumbs-down, to spend ₹200 on a predictable big film or on a small, uneven one. Deciding whether a particular film will offend their sensibilities should also be left to them.

This piece led off the '100 years of censorship' package in Mint Lounge.

Isle of Dogs: Review

If stop motion didn’t already exist, one gets the feeling Wes Anderson would have invented it. It’s difficult to imagine any other animation style working as well for him. Every characteristic of stop motion is reflected in his cinema: the detailing, the tactility, the slight formality, a world of effort concentrated in a single gesture or frame.

Isle of Dogs is Anderson’s second animated feature after his adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr Fox, and the first he’s built from an original story. And I do mean original. One can picture Anderson telling studio executives, “So, there’s this evil mayor of a dystopian Japanese city who banishes all the dogs to a trash island after an outbreak of canine flu. Tilda Swinton is a pug named Oracle. I’m thinking I’ll make it mostly in Japanese.” And, after an awkward silence, “Bill Murray’s in it.”

In a prologue rendered in ravishing still images, we’re told that the cat-loving Kobayashi dynasty had once waged war on dogs, nearly wiping out the entire population, before a boy samurai killed the head of the clan. But the ancient grudge has persisted; the mayor who orders the exile of the dogs is named Kobayashi. He starts with Spots, the bodyguard hound of his young ward, Atari. Soon, all dogs in Megasaki—unused to fending for themselves, many of them down with snout fever—have been deported to the trash heap of an island off the coast.

Even in a Wes Anderson film—not the most canine-friendly environment—you apparently can’t keep a boy and his dog apart. Atari crash-lands his plane on the island and is discovered by Chief (Bryan Cranston), Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Boss (Bill Murray) and Duke (Jeff Goldblum). Despite Chief’s protests—he was a stray back in Megasaki, and feels no kinship towards humans—they decide to help him look for Spots.

It’s easy to get lost in the off-kilter rhythms of stop-motion—all those famous voices charmingly out-of-sync with the facial movements of the characters—but try and tear your gaze from time to time to the ingenious, ever-changing backdrops. The trash piles up scene after scene like so many art installations (a cave constructed out of used sake bottles—the dogs did that?), and a couple of the landscapes left me short of breath, as when we look down on Atari and the pack walking in single file, a row of rusted trucks on one side, a sheer drop on the other, The West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band’s I Won’t Hurt You gently throbbing on the soundtrack.

In the wake of the film’s release, some have expressed discomfort with what they think are Japanese stereotypes that Anderson has used. I wouldn’t presume to tell anyone to not feel culturally offended, but it’s worth noting that Anderson’s style has always been dependent on archetypes, from artistic, high-strung New York Jews to suave, sexually flexible Continentals. His vision of India in The Darjeeling Limited struck me as neither offensive not authentic—just Anderson looking, in his peculiar way, at a part of the world that fascinates him. Similarly, I’d hesitate to attach deeper significance to the deportations in Isle of Dogs—if Anderson’s a political filmmaker, he keeps it well-hidden. One charge against him I’ve never agreed with, though, is that he’s too clever, not emotional enough. Show me another director who can take a conversation between two dogs, strangers speaking in uninflected voices in the dark of night , and make it hurt like a Raymond Carver story.

This review appeared in Mint.

Sanju: Review

When Sanju broke for an interval, I hurried out to buy that cup of coffee without which a 160-minute film feels like, well, a 160-minute film. When I returned, the 20-something man in the seat next to mine asked what I’d been writing in my notebook. I told him they were notes, and asked why he was at an 8 am show when he could’ve watched the film later in the day. “In a way, this film is my story,” he said. He told me he’d been on drugs. He was in a coma for 15 months. He’d attempted suicide, gone to jail for accidentally firing a gun while running from a hospital. He was three years clean now, and finishing college. He hadn’t been able to sleep the previous night out of excitement. There was a faint smell of alcohol on his breath.

I have no idea if anything my neighbour told me was true. But it was a useful reminder that what might seem to one person an impossibly exaggerated story could be as real as documentary to someone else. I looked at the screen and saw Ranbir Kapoor doing an often-uncanny Sanjay Dutt impression. He looked up and saw his past missteps. Somewhere in between these two viewings and a theatre-full of others, Sanju was unfolding.

When it was announced that Rajkumar Hirani was making a Sanjay Dutt biopic, there was a good deal of scepticism. Hindi biopics are nearly always uncontroversial, and often worshipful—and this was a film about the star of Hirani’s breakout film, Munna Bhai MBBS. The prospect of Hirani, expert locator of the surreal in the everyday, taking on a real-life subject was admittedly intriguing, but it didn’t seem like there was any way the film wouldn’t go soft on its subject.

Sanju isn’t a hagiography—but it’s also careful about how it takes Dutt to task. We’re shown the actor’s struggles with drugs and alcohol in graphic detail, but the blame is eventually pinned on his supplier (played by Jim Sarbh). Similarly, though the film doesn’t paper over the time he kept AK-56 rifles, sourced from a terrorist, in his home, this too is put down to a combination of fear, naïveté and bad advice. Often, when Sanjay is shown doing something truly horrible—like turning up high to meet his ex-girlfriend when her father has just died—the scene is given a comic tone. It’s a warts-and-all film that hedges its bets: Sanju baba is rarely kept apart from the viewer’s sympathy.

Hirani is one of the great deflators of solemnity in Hindi film. When his instinct to subvert works, it works beautifully. But it can also result in scenes that push for laughs while being actively distasteful. If you laughed at the “balaatkar” scene in 3 Idiots, you’ll probably find the sequence in Sanju where Dutt sleeps with his best friend’s girlfriend amusing. Sanjay Dutt is trying to help Kamlesh (Vicky Kaushal), a virgin, “open his account”. He’s there in the build-up to the big night; he, not Kamlesh, hands the girlfriend lingerie to wear; and when she emerges to find Kamlesh passed out, he’s still around. He confesses the next day, but it’s a comic moment, and there’s a terrible echo of a punchline later in the film when Kamlesh jokes that they’ll be even when he sleeps with Dutt’s girlfriend after he passes out.

Sanju is recognisably a Hirani film—you see it in the eccentric touches. A roomful of militant goons stand with their fingers in their ears, like kindergartners. A barber explains in a few crisp lines why he’s in jail, and Dutt decides against getting a shave. Sanju is dancing with his dead mother in one scene; in the next, he’s cha-cha-cha-ing in rehab. Also characteristic of Hirani and his long-time co-writer, Abhijat Joshi, is the emotional directness. Dutt might be a complicated guy, but this is a simple film, with a phalanx of violins to alert you whenever it’s time to shed a tear. At one point, Sunil Dutt (Paresh Rawal) is called “terrorist ka baap”. After his son makes good, someone calls him “Munna bhai ka baap”.

A clue to how the makers would like Dutt’s story to be received by viewers is there in the evolving attitude of Winnie (Anushka Sharma). Hired by Dutt to write his life story, the frizzy-haired writer is ostensibly a sceptic, initially refusing the project and, later, walking out on it. But she’s also moved to tears by his reminiscences, does no research of her own, and seems to take everything her subject says at face value. For a film that casts an acerbic eye at news media, Sanju presents a thoroughly compliant alternative.

It makes sense that Hirani would get Ranbir Kapoor—whose characters are often directionless—to play the ultimate lost boy of Hindi cinema. The imitation (astonishing at times) takes over the performance; I found myself more impressed than affected by it. There is one scene that stood apart, though. Sunil Dutt has just finished telling Sanjay a story about his mother, Nargis, and smuggler Haji Mastan. He starts singing “Na moonh chhupake jiyo”; his son joins in reluctantly. After some time, Rawal stops, and Kapoor continues, rapt, in a voice that sounds nothing like Sanjay’s. The audience in the theatre responded to this moment with appreciative shouts, as if encouraging him to take wing.

This review appeared in Mint.

Ocean's 8: Review

It begins like the other one did: an Ocean sibling in prison, explaining to someone off-camera why they should be released, leaving prison better-dressed than most people in the normal course of their lives, immediately seeking out their partner in crime. But then, Ocean’s 8 does something Steven Soderbergh’s earlier films would never have. When Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock) meets Lou (Cate Blanchett) for the first time after prison, I wondered if they’d slip into the dry, finishing-each-other’s-sentences rapport that Danny and Rusty had. Instead, as Debbie sits in the car, Lou darts it from outside the frame and gives her a hug and a quick kiss. That’s more emotion displayed than the entire Danny Ocean trilogy.

Moments like these help distinguish the all-female Ocean’s 8 from its male-fronted predecessors, but there aren’t nearly enough of them. Instead, Gary Ross’ film does its best to be like the earlier ones, cherry-picking them for personality types and narrative devices and character beats. Turns out a group of highly talented female cons isn’t that different from a bunch of male criminals—which isn’t beyond the realm of possibility, just disappointing if you’re looking for new rhythms, fresh ways of approaching a set formula.

Debbie’s been hatching a plan while incarcerated, a heist involving a rare diamond necklace, to be taken off the person of actress Daphne Kluger (Anne Hathaway) while she’s at the Met Gala (like Danny’s plan in Ocean’s Eleven, Debbie’s also has a personal angle involving an old flame). She and Lou put a team together: Rose (Helena Bonham Carter), a once-prominent designer down on her luck; Constance (Awkwafina), a pickpocket; Tammy (Sarah Paulson), a fence; jewellery expert Amita (Mindy Kaling) and dreadlocked hacker Nine Ball (Rihanna). Ever since Seven Samurai, the recruitment montage has been one of the signal pleasures of mainstream cinema, but only Carter’s introduction is eccentric enough to stand out here. The rest are boilerplate, especially Kaling’s, which is hampered by the overused trope of Indian mothers worrying their daughters about getting married and the comedian speaking unconvincing Hindi.

Once Daphne becomes a bigger part of the narrative, things perk up—Hathaway is a hoot as the vacuous star, and Carter, sporting a scattered look and an Irish accent, plays off her hilariously. The plan, which takes up the last 45 or so minutes, is elaborate and precisely executed and all the things you’d expect it to be. All it lacks is a sucker-punch of a twist, something that might make a viewer crack an appreciative grin. A late revelation is surprising but far from convincing (it feels like the writers worked backwards from the twist), and the culmination of Ocean’s scheme is depressingly well-signalled.

Ross opts for a tone less compulsively glib than that of the Soderbergh films—the wisecracks are fewer, if not necessarily better. Nevertheless, there are some concise comic moments. I laughed out loud when Debbie, pretending to be German, bumps into Heidi Klum at the Gala and wings her way through a conversation with a facility that would’ve impressed Hans Landa. And there are other small pleasures: the intermingling of Irish, Caribbean, Australian accents; Daphne responding to “Barbie, but in a good way” with a tearful “Thank you”; everything Blanchett wears in the film but especially that dark green jumpsuit.

This review appeared in Mint. 

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Occupy the Louvre


There’s been an explosion of visual pop art over the past few years that addresses and, in some cases, rearranges African-American history. It’s there in the chilling image of the Sunken Place in Jordan Peele’s Get Out, in the references to Warsan Shire, Julie Dash and Malcolm X in Beyoncé’s Lemonade, in Donald Glover’s deliberate minstrelsy in "This Is America".

There has also been a pointed effort by black artists to claim for themselves genres and spaces that have traditionally been regarded as foreign terrain. When singer Solange Knowles performed at the Guggenheim Museum in New York last year, she stressed that the goal wasn’t just inclusion. “I’m not settling for being allowed in these spaces,” she said afterwards, “but for tearing these f***ing walls down.”

Now, Solange’s sister is tearing down walls in an even more famous museum. On 16 June, Beyoncé and Jay-Z dropped a surprise album, Everything Is Love, and with it the video for its lead single "Apes**t". It unfolds in the Louvre, Paris, with the Carters in front of some of the best-known art in the Western world: Mona Lisa, Venus De Milo, Winged Victory Of Samothrace. Black bodies and faces are largely absent in the works on display—the camera has to zoom in on one painting to find coloured servants—but they are there in the video, occupying the museum space; some performing, others still. To see them and the world’s most famous celebrity couple in an environment practically devoid of coloured artists and subjects is enough to set the mind off. This isn’t just art, it’s art criticism—a series of juxtapositions that force us to examine something familiar with fresh eyes.

What makes this video especially potent isn’t just the connections that are explicitly drawn, but the fertile space created in which viewers might form their own associations. The cut from Théodore Géricault’s The Charging Chasseur—a cavalry officer on horseback, controlled even in the heat of battle—to an eerie shot of a black man standing on a horse, suggestive of a lynching, or the one from Hermes Fastening his Sandal to a formation of young men taking a knee is open to any number of interpretations. Every single work shown in the video may have a profound reason for being chosen, but even if that isn’t the case, it hardly matters. The Carters make you (and a million others) wonder why, and that’s a victory in itself.

When Jean-Luc Godard had his characters kill time by racing through the Louvre in 1964’s Bande À Part, it was both insurrectionary and playful—a raspberry blown at the solemnity of high art. Beyoncé and Jay-Z, though, aren’t playing around. Their target is more specific: the European art tradition that exists on the back of colonialism, slavery and the exclusion of non-white cultures. A similar revisionist approach can be found in the Uncomfortable Art Tours, started in 2017 by historian Alice Procter, which focus on the colonial, imperialist and slaver origins of the art on display at the British Museum, Tate Britain and other institutions. The tour description doesn’t mince words: “There are bloody handprints on the gallery walls, and the bodies of slaves and colonised peoples in the foundations.”

In its closing moments, "Apes**t" does a hop, skip and jump across 4,600 years of art history. As Beyoncé sings “I can’t believe we made it”, and Quavo, of the rap trio Migos, adds, “This is what we made, made”, we see the Carters silhouetted in front of the Great Sphinx of Tanis, the centrepiece of the Louvre’s Egyptian wing. Then there’s a close-up of Marie-Guillemine Benoist’s Portrait Of A Negress, the only painting in the video in which a black (anonymous) subject is foregrounded. Finally, we see Beyoncé and Jay-Z standing in front of the Mona Lisa, which is kept out of focus as they face the camera. The painting is the backdrop, they’re the artwork.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Lust Stories: Review























Parsing Lust Stories for literal meaning isn’t quite as fun as speculating on the various subtexts—real or imagined—of this anthology. Is Zoya Akhtar’s short an artistic bridge from the upper-crust universe of her last two features to the more down-to-earth setting of her forthcoming film on Mumbai rappers? Are Radhika Apte’s manic, distracted speech patterns a tribute to her director, Anurag Kashyap? Where has Dibakar Banerjee been? Just how edgy does Karan Johar think he needs to be to fit in with this group?

Lust Stories, which is streaming on Netflix from 15 June, is a follow-up of sorts to Bombay Talkies. Like that 2013 anthology film, this too has a short each from Kashyap, Banerjee, Akhtar and Johar, all of which explore a common theme. Bombay Talkies revolved around our relationship to cinema; of the four, only Banerjee, adapting a Satyajit Ray story, aced his contribution. This time, with lust as the theme, the results are far more satisfying.

Either by design or accident, each of the films in Lust Stories is emotionally centered on a female protagonist. In Kashyap’s short, Kalindi (Radhika Apte) is a college professor who sleeps with a student while in a long-distance marriage. In Akhtar’s, house help Sudha (Bhumi Pednekar) has to go from starting the day in bed with her employer to waiting on his parents and the family of a prospective match. Reena (Manisha Koirala) is having an affair with her husband’s friend in Banerjee’s film; in Johar’s, a young schoolteacher with a desultory sex life seizes on a vibrant alternative.

Women’s bodies and their agency over them has become one of the biggest flashpoints in recent Hindi cinema. Angry Indian Goddesses and Lipstick Under My Burkha were held up by the censors for their frank—though hardly explicit—depictions of female desire, while a scene involving masturbation in the recent Veere Di Wedding has attracted all manner of (mostly male) indignation. The most forthright exploration of female sexuality in Lust Stories comes from Johar, whose film has Megha (Kiara Advani) writhing under the effects of a vibrator in front of her husband, Paras (Vicky Kaushal), his mother and sister-in-law. It’s an amusing, rather cartoonish film, more admirable for its championing of female pleasure than it is convincing. But it is disappointing to see Johar mock his own brand of cinema, with the theme song of Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham serving as a wicked punchline; even if he has no need for it now, his long-time audience likely still holds it dear.

Taking ownership of one’s actions, no matter how embarrassing, is at the heart of both Johar’s film and an atypically playful Kashyap short. In the latter, Kalindi frequently addresses the camera, offering a variety of justifications for her affair with Tejas (Akash Thosar) and her mounting jealousy when he appears to show interest in one of his classmates. Kalindi is so excited to share her scattered thoughts that she mangles phrases and breaks off in mid-flow to pursue other lines of reasoning. Apte plays her like an open book, albeit one that’s filled with confused scribbles. It’s a stunning performance, as sharp and funny as the one Laetitia Dosch gave in last year’s Montparnasse Bienvenue.

Sandwiched between the outgoing films of Kashyap and Johar are two inward-looking ones. Akhtar directs hers with a muted economy that’s light-years from the bold colours and grand gestures of Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara and Dil Dhadakne Do. Unlike the three other segments, which pack a lot of plot and thought into a small run-time, this feels like a bona fide short—starting in the middle of something instead of at the beginning, ending without resolution, and going on just long enough to give us a glimpse of a life. Pednekar’s look as she waits for the elevator at the end of the day, exchanging a few words with another house help (who’s been given a dress by her employer, and doesn’t care that it’s slightly torn), clutching her own “gift” of congratulatory sweets, is impossible to read. A full-length feature about an employer having sex with the help would have to address issues of class and agency, but Akhtar can afford to not impose anything on the viewer here.

Stung by husband’s neglect, Reena began an affair with Sudhir (Jaideep Ahlawat) three years ago. They aren’t in love; she’s married to his best friend, he’s a commitment-phobic divorcee. Banerjee’s short explores a common enough scenario—a meeting between adulterers and the cheated party—but gives it a feminist spin by revealing both men as feckless and indecisive and placing the woman (who, after some initial panic, treats her husband’s arrival at her lover’s house with a matter-of-factness that suggests she expected this day would come) in charge of offering a solution. The casting is unusual and wonderful: Sanjay Kapoor as the childish spouse who’s all bluster; Ahlawat, possessor of the best poker-face in Hindi cinema today; and the lightly frowning Koirala, shot without sentiment but with great tenderness as she considers how best to resolve a no-win situation. It’s a beautiful idea, having Koirala—who’ll be seen later this month in Rajkumar Hirani’s Sanju as Nargis—in a role that ends up being about picking yourself up and starting over. Few Hindi film actors are more deserving of a substantial second innings.

This review was published in Mint.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

The beautiful frame

 

My favourite film scene involving football lasts all of 40 seconds. A group of men jostle and kick a ball in a narrow lane. They’re dressed in white shirts and dark slacks, the one red vest standing out. The afternoon sun paints the cobbled road a deep amber. Lens flares invade the frame. One of them grabs hold of the ball, a minor altercation follows. We watch him walk away into the light. Was it a dream?

The world’s most widely played sport has inspired commercial cinema of every stripe, from the corny thrills of the Goal films to the superior craftsmanship of The Damned United (2009) and the lunacy of Shaolin Soccer (2001). There’s much pleasure to be derived from middling-to-good films about football, but if snap zooms excite you as much as spot kicks, head further afield, where scenes like the one described above—from Hong Kong film-maker Wong Kar-wai’s mesmeric Happy Together (1997)—can be found, as a more questing form of cinema is applied to the beautiful game.

Germany has a proud footballing history and a long tradition of cinematic innovation. Ever so often, the two have overlapped, as they did in The Goalie’s Anxiety At The Penalty Kick (1972), an early film by Wim Wenders. This anti-procedural begins with a goalkeeper conceding a goal and getting sent off. He wanders around, and, almost offhandedly, commits a terrible crime, after which, instead of running or surrendering to the police, he heads to the country and waits. In a film that isn’t even about football, the figure of the goalie becomes a metaphor for a kind of stasis—at once part of the action and removed from it—and for the second-guessing that takes place between cop and criminal, keeper and striker.

England is as football-crazy a nation as Germany, and the sport has been making its way into their films from early on (a football-themed thriller, The Arsenal Stadium Mystery, was made in 1939). In 1969, Ken Loach adapted Barry Hines’ novel A Kestrel For A Knave into one of the greatest British films of all time. Even today, Kes feels wild and fiercely beautiful, like the falcon that Billy, a young boy from a drab mining town, trains. Though it’s a bleak and often desperately sad film, the one sequence many remember is a largely comic one: a game of football in which Billy and his mates are joined on the field by an overenthusiastic physical education teacher. Anyone who has played a sport will recognize this earnestly ridiculous type, living out a fantasy of being a famous athlete in the most mundane of settings.

A year earlier, in a docudrama he directed for the BBC, Loach allowed a similarly deluded fan a wish-fulfilling ending. The Golden Vision (1968) appears to be a documentary at first glance, though it’s actually a clever blending of real footage and scripted scenes performed by actors playing fans of English football club Everton. Loach examines, with typical directness, the selfishness of fandom—supporters who miss births and flee from weddings in order to be at matches. Yet, his sympathy for the working class is palpable: You can draw a line from a factory worker saying, “It gets a bit tough pushing them tyres around...but then I haven’t got any qualifications,” to the hard knocks his characters take in the 2016 Palme d’Or winner, I, Daniel Blake.

This March in Tehran, 35 women were detained for trying to attend a game between two local football teams. The following month, photographs of five girls at a football game disguised as boys went viral. Since the 1979 revolution, it has been almost impossible for Iranian women to attend male sporting events, which makes Jafar Panahi’s Offside as relevant today as it was when it released in 2006. It tells the story of a handful of young women who unsuccessfully try and break into a World Cup qualifying match in disguise. They are detained by police officers and held just outside the stadium—tantalizingly close to the action. Shot in trademark semi-documentary Iranian style, the film is a lively and often poignant examination of how denying true fans their fandom is every bit as soul-crushing as the withholding of ostensibly bigger freedoms. The moment when the detainees dance in an ecstatic huddle when the home team scores a goal, a sliver of the action visible through the bars of a locked gate, is one of the most moving scenes in modern Iranian cinema.

The sports documentary is as trope-bound as any fiction film genre, but some directors have turned it into abstract art. Olympia (1938), Leni Riefenstahl’s film on the 1936 Berlin Olympics, is at its most astonishing when it gets up close to the athletes, capturing every grunt and twitch. This intense focus on a player is taken to extremes in Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait (2006). Directors Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno used 17 synchronized cameras to track every move that Real Madrid striker Zinedine Zidane made during a 2005 La Liga match. We’re shown only those parts of the game in which Zidane is involved. The rest of the time we see him do the lonely work of an athlete, exerting effort without any immediate reward. It’s not an easy watch, but you won’t find a more intimate look at football in motion.

This piece appeared in Mint Lounge.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Bhavesh Joshi Superhero: Review

There’s a sequence in Bhavesh Joshi Superhero that seemed almost unbearably stupid at the time I was watching it, but later struck me as the kind of crazy risk this film could have done with more of. It unfolds in a dance bar in Mumbai, where Sikandar (Harshvardhan Kapoor), wearing a partially bald wig, is spying on a group of corrupt officials. As if to distract from the awfulness of the hairpiece, the song that’s blaring has a chorus which goes “Tere chumme mein Chavanprash hai”—a contender for the un-sexiest thought ever voiced in a Hindi film. To top it all, when Sikandar and his quarry come face-to-face on the dance floor, there’s no confrontation. Instead, like Pran and Kishore Kumar in Half Ticket, hunter and hunted end up dancing together.

Between “muscle waala majnu, Kolhapuri Schwarzenegger” and Sikandar’s decision to almost get himself killed waiting for a green light before breaking every conceivable traffic rule over the next five minutes, this sequence represents a film, and a director, ready to go out on a limb. At no other point does Bhavesh Joshi risk looking this silly—and at no other point does it feel like its own film. Instead, Vikramaditya Motwane’s film is depressingly templated, hitting all the expected vigilante-hero beats but bringing little that’s original to the table.

The film begins in 2011, with Sikandar and his friends Rajat (Ashish Verma) and Bhavesh (Priyanshu Painyuli) fired up by the ongoing anti-corruption movement. They start a rebellion of their own, putting paper bags over their heads, accosting low-key law-breakers and posting the videos on their “Insaaf” website. The stakes are fairly low, and Sikandar eventually tires and takes up an office job as a coder. Bhavesh continues, investigating a case of a colony suffering from chronic water shortages. The film turns into Chinatown for a spell, complete with water-siphoning scam, corrupt cops, city officials and politicians, and bandaged broken nose.

I won’t reveal what happens next—though a hop and skip of logic should get you there long before the narrative catches up—but Sikandar returns to fight the good fight, assuming his friend’s full name, Bhavesh Joshi, as his superhero moniker. He trains in karate and parkour and stick-wielding—the same hero-prepares montage that’s there in every vigilante movie ever made. There’s a girl he likes—a character so perfunctorily written and incidental to the story that I was surprised the film checked in with her in the second half—but nothing else to tie him down emotionally or distract from the urgent business of crime-fighting. It’s a good setup for a home-grown no-strings lone wolf hero. There’s only one problem.

Harshvardhan Kapoor has none of what they call game face. He has precisely one face—pleasant, unperturbed—that he wears to every occasion, whether he’s looking at a corpse or eating dinner or awaiting almost certain death. It’s a bold move, to cast an actor this mild as a superhero and hope he’ll fill the screen. It never happens; even when Sikandar speaks to criminals from behind his nifty-looking mask, the voice that emerges is measured, inquisitive. You don’t need every masked hero to cough up gravel like Christian Bale, but who expects a reasonable-sounding vigilante?

After Udaan, Lootera and Trapped, it’s hard to begrudge Motwane a misstep. One of his strengths as a director is his economy, the ability to convey in a few scenes what other directors would take a dozen to explain (the burgeoning romance in Lootera, for instance, or the build-up to the lock-in in Trapped). But Bhavesh Joshi is 155 minutes long, and you feel it, especially in the farcical first half. The writing, by Motwane, Anurag Kashyap and Abhay Koranne, can’t quite find the hard-boiled tone it‘s attempting. Neither Sikandar nor his friends are compelling characters, their activism progressing unconvincingly from vague discontentment to investigative journalism to vigilantism. The antagonists are only handed crimes, not personalities, though Nishikant Kamat, playing a corrupt MLA, chews and spits out his lines with relish.

As the film progresses, it comes alive visually, with Motwane and cinematographer Siddharth Diwan pulling velvety images out of the black of night. There’s more space to play with than there was in their last outing, Trapped, but this is Mumbai after all, where even the outdoors can be cramped. Perhaps to counter this, frequent (and excellent) use is made of the overhead shot, the god’s-eye view appropriate for the genre, even if superhero Bhavesh is still getting his wings (while being told the story of Icarus, whose wax feathers melted when he flew too close to the sun).

Bhavesh Joshi is caught in a peculiar bind: it’s a bit too competent to be dismissed, but not original or striking enough to dispel the feeling that it’s all been done before. It isn’t aimed at the kids who watched Ra.One or Krrish; it’s too violent and self-aware. If I was reminded of Daredevil and The Dark Knight, Kick-Ass and Street Hawk, chances are its intended audience will be as well. And if it can’t do anything new with the genre, how far will being India’s first un-embarrassing superhero film carry it? Motwane does his best to set up a franchise, keeping several character fates hanging in the balance and even throwing in post-credits scenes. To borrow a phrase, he’s playing in a corner of a foreign field.

This review appeared in Mint.

Solo: A Star Wars Story: Review

The production of Solo: A Star Wars Story involved one of the strangest baton-passes in recent memory. The second spin-off in the Star Wars universe was originally entrusted to Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, makers of febrile, self-aware pipe bombs like 21 Jump Street, The Lego Movie and their sequels – seemingly distracted films for a genuinely distracted generation. The idea of directors as irreverent as Lord and Miller let loose on material that’s usually treated (by fans at least) as some sort of Dead Sea scroll was exciting – and not to be, with the directors replaced, after shooting was almost complete, by Ron Howard.

It’s a fascinating switch, for Howard is the cinematic opposite of Lord-Miller. He’s a modern-day Michael Curtiz: a hired hand in the best sense, moving between comedy (Splash), manic action (Rush), dramas both prestige (A Beautiful Mind, Apollo 13) and chamber (Frost/Nixon), and half a dozen other subgenres. There’s no discernable personal style, but apart from the leaden Robert Langdon films, his work usually ranges from eminently watchable and commercial corn of the highest order. One can imagine Lucasfilm sending this oldest of pros a distress hologram, telling him the kids weren’t all right.

Even more surprising than the switch is the fact that it works, sort of. Solo doesn’t set out to be more than a respectable tenth entry in a franchise that’s recently alienated a section of its fans by trying to be narratively bolder (though only by Star Wars standards) and more diverse. Howard isn’t the sort to ruffle feathers, yet he manages to capture some of the joyous, wide-eyed spirit of the 1977 film. It’s the least angsty Star Wars film in ages, and the better for it: the romantic tracks sing, the action sequences are coherent and exciting, there’s fog when it’s appropriate and wind whipping people’s hair when it should be.

Before he joined up with Luke and Leia, Han (Alden Ehrenreich) – the ‘Solo’ will duly arrive – is a small-time thief on the planet Corellia with dreams of being a pilot and roaming the galaxy with his partner, Q’ira (Emilia Clarke). Their escape doesn’t go as planned; Han ends up joining the Imperial army and, later, teaming up career criminals Beckett (Woody Harrelson) and Val (Thandie Newton). One thing leads to another and soon they’re all running a complicated heist for crime lord Dryden Voss (Paul Bettany), who has in his employ – in all the cantinas in all the galaxies, etc – Q’ira. This misshapen posse is joined by Han’s other great love, Chewbacca, and by Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover), who puts the out (if droid-love counts) in outlaw.

In the months leading up to the release of the first Star Wars spin-off, Rogue One (2016), there was a good deal of excitement regarding its diverse cast. Yet, those performances turned out to be dour, stilted – like the film itself. Reports from the sets of Solo suggested that Lord and Miller weren’t exactly actors’ directors either. But Howard, whatever his limitations as a film-maker, has a rare facility with performers (he’s directed eight Oscar-nominated turns). It’s difficult not to see his steadying hand in the measured, appealing turns by Clarke and Harrelson, and in Bettany’s excellent hissing villain. Ehrenreich channels the twinkly eyed Harrison Ford of American Graffiti and the 1977 Star Wars instead of the grumpy Ford of legend, and gets by fine. Then there’s Glover, who slips in as much sex appeal and eccentricity as anyone’s ever managed in the Lucasverse.

Lawrence Kasdan has shaped the Star Wars story over four films, and it seems callous to suggest that he give way to a younger voice. But the writing on Solo (with his son, Jonathan Kasdan), while serviceable, seems mired in the past. I saw “On these mean streets…” in the opening titles and wondered, are we finally getting a Star Wars noir? (We weren’t.) Later, someone signs off with “It’s been a ride, babe, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” as if we’re in a ‘40s movie, an impression strengthened by the number of times various characters are addressed as “kid” (come to think of it, Han Solo isn’t far from an intergalactic Rick, unwilling to stick his neck out during a world war).

Far from being the disaster many had predicted, Solo is the best-acted (I haven’t even gotten to Phoebe Waller-Bridge), most enjoyable Star Wars film since the original trilogy. It’s also the most conservative, making fewer missteps than its immediate predecessors only because it takes fewer risks. This isn’t the Han Solo movie you need – it’s unlikely such a thing will ever be. But it’s a perfectly good Han Solo movie to want.

This review appeared in Mint.

Deadpool 2: Review

Franchise films today tend to keep viewers moving quickly from one emotion to another, the constant variation giving the impression of a balanced meal, but without the actual nutrition of a well-digested moment. Studios have become so adept at this sort of juggling that a film like Logan is immediately recognisable as an outlier, simply because it picks a mood and stays with it (that the mood was deep despair was the real envelope-pushing on the film’s part, not its R-rated leanings). For most studio films, though, the tendency now is to open and close emotional valves quickly.

An extreme example of emotional flightiness occurs in the first 15 minutes of Deadpool 2. A prominent character is killed off; a bold move for a franchise built on near-constant irreverence. But barely have we processed the death, and we’re watching opening credits which replace the names of cast and crew members with smart-aleck references to the demise. In the screening I was at, the audience’s shock was immediately replaced by knowing laughter.

If a film can’t take a character’s death seriously, should the viewer? Every scattered emotional beat after this rang false—just because the film couldn’t hold off for some time before winking at the audience. In doing so, Deadpool 2 revealed itself to be, underneath all the cussing and violence, as careful and compromised a studio offering as any other.

Since the events of the first film, Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds), he of the scarred face, smart mouth and extraordinary strength, has become a globe-trotting superhero. A series of setbacks places him in the path of Russell (Julian Dennison), a troubled young mutant with fiery hands, whom he undertakes to protect from time-travelling soldier Cable (Josh Brolin). He also gains an ally in Domino (Atlanta’s Zazie Beetz), whose superpower is that she’s incredibly lucky. Deadpool piecing together a makeshift family—mutant Colossus (Stefan Kapičić), cabbie Dopinder (Karan Soni) and trash-talking buddy Weasel (TJ Miller) are back as well—is the clearly spelt-out subtext of David Leitch’s sequel. It’s an amusing conceit (especially when an early attempt comes violently undone), though one that’s been explored multiple times within the X-Men universe (which Deadpool is a part of), and, outside it, in the Guardians of the Galaxy films.

There’s no denying that Deadpool 2 is rippingly, exhaustingly funny: there isn’t a line uttered by someone other than Wade that isn’t topped with a follow-up wisecrack. With a barrage like this, not every joke has to land—Reynolds, with his trickster voice and comic timing, can sell almost anything—but Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick’s patter is as wide-ranging and acerbic as it was in 2016’s Deadpool. There isn’t a corner of the cultural landscape that’s safe: Marvel, DC, Air Supply, Say Anything, dubstep, the Terminator, Josh Brolin (called “Thanos” by Wade). The one thing that escapes parody, surprisingly, is Norwegian band A-ha, whose 1984 hit "Take On Me" is given an ethereal reworking. It’s used close to the end, and shows how it doesn’t take much more than a well-chosen song and two capable performers to graft emotion onto a scene.

This review appeared in Mint.

Monday, May 14, 2018

The year Cannes was canned




On the morning of 18 May 1968, a press conference is held at the Jean Cocteau Theater in Cannes. By then, the 21st edition of the annual film festival held in the French seaside resort town has already been underway for a week. The meeting is called by François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, originators of the French New Wave. Truffaut calls for a shutdown of the festival in solidarity with the strikes and demonstrations taking place across France protesting authoritarianism and the Vietnam War, and all hell breaks loose. 

As charged press conferences go, they don't get much better. “I want the festival to close,” Truffaut says to a volley of boos. “We’re talking solidarity with students and workers, and you’re talking dolly shots and close-ups,” Godard yells. “You’re idiots!” Claude Lelouch and Milos Forman announce they’re withdrawing their films. A disgruntled Roman Polanski says that shutdown or not, no one gives a hoot about Cannes. One attendee stands within swinging distance of Truffaut and shouts in his face. Finally, a man in a suit announces that since they can’t guarantee screenings will go on uninterrupted, they are shutting down the festival. 

Fifty years on, Truffaut is no more, and Godard has a film in competition at the 71st Cannes Film Festival (8-19 May). It’s a little disappointing that the festival hasn’t called attention to that tumultuous month in its line-up, not even in the Cannes Classics selection, for May 1968 has reverberated through French cinema over the years, providing either setting or inspiration for a number of remarkable films. Several directors took active part in the protests: joining the strikers, making documentaries, forming film-making units that operated on socialist principles. Some, like Godard, Truffaut and Philippe Garrel, were already working then, while others like Olivier Assayas were experiencing the events as any regular teen would. All would reference May 1968 in a later work.

If you want to ease into a 1968 frame of mind, Michel Hazanavicius’ Redoubtable, which played at Cannes last year, is what you need. It’s a fictional look at Godard (played by a brilliantly pouty Louis Garrel), circa 1967, as he embarks on a relationship with actress Anne Wiazemsky and turns his back on narrative film-making in favour of political cinema. The infamous press conference turns up as a radio broadcast, with Wiazemsky and her friends smiling at how militant Godard sounds. The fallout of the Cannes cancellation is shown in a hilarious scene, with  director Michel Cournot complaining to co-passengers in a packed car about not getting to show his film at the festival, until Godard erupts. Even the protest scenes are turned into comedy, with strikers asking Godard—who is trying to break away from his earlier style—when he’s going to make another Breathless


Redoubtable is a massively entertaining film: affectionate towards, but not worshipful of, its subject. Still, if you’re looking for a less joke-y take on that time, try Philippe Garrel’s lyrical Regular Lovers (2005). Garrel was a prodigy in 1968, only 20, and already the director of a feature film. He shot a short documentary—some say it was the work of a collective—on the streets of Paris (look for Actua 1 on YouTube). For all the starkness of the images of rioting students and baton-wielding cops, a few moments of New Wave playfulness survive. “What comes into the world to change nothing deserves neither respect nor patience,” the voice-over intones. “That needs repeating,” says another voice. The line is repeated. 

Regular Lovers begins with 10 minutes of nothing much happening at all (not unusual for Garrel) before exploding into action, with a hallucinatory night-time stand-off between students and the police. Having shown us the world outside, Garrel then heads inward, stoking the battle fires of emotion that raged through young people like himself that year. It’s the very model of a French art film: grainy black and white, lots of cigarettes and coffee and young people discussing philosophy and sex, art and politics (which makes it a good bridge to Jean Eustache’s lacerating 1971 black and white film, The Mother And The Whore, which Cahiers Du Cinéma once called the only true May 1968 film). 


The one film about 1968 that has been seen by a substantial number outside the cinephile community is Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers (2003)—the promise of Michael Pitt, Louis Garrel and Eva Green in a ménage à trois might be why. For an equally dazzling but more resonant account of the time, you might opt for Olivier Assayas’ Something In The Air (2012) instead. The film is set in 1971, but the spirit of 1968 courses through its night-time graffiti raids and chaotic protest meets. But Assayas also questions, through the central figure of Gilles, who is fighting the system but also trying to be a painter and film-maker, whether art and true revolution are compatible. “Shouldn’t revolutionary cinema use revolutionary syntax?” a film-making collective is asked. “Could it be that the revolutionary syntax you speak of is the individualistic style of the bourgeoisie?” one of them shoots back. 

Redoubtable ends on a similar note, with Godard told to choose between cinema (in this case, tracking shots) and politics (the majority opinion of the collective he is working with). Thankfully, half a century later, the cinema that 1968 inspired gives you the chance to opt for both. 

This piece, part of the World View series, appeared in Mint Lounge.