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.

Raazi: Review

When Meghna Gulzar’s Raazi opened aboard an Indian navy vessel, in the present day but evidently a prelude to a flashback, with officers being told about the sacrifices earlier generations had made, I groaned: this was going to be that sort of film. My fears, it quickly became clear, were unfounded—the jump to 1971 was followed by 15 blissfully efficient minutes of scene-setting. With the war brewing in Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) as the backdrop, Hidayat (Rajit Kapur), a Kashmiri, passes information about Indian military plans to Parvez Syed (Shishir Sharma), a Pakistani brigadier. Parvez and Hidayat are friends, and the army man warns him about Khalid Mir, a key Indian intelligence agent. In the next scene, we see Hidayat with Mir (Jaideep Ahlawat) and realise he’s actually working for India.

Even before the central character makes her appearance, these early exchanges give the impression Raazi knows what it is and where it’s going. In spite of its perpetual forward drive, the writing has a minor-key poetry to it; there’s a surge of melancholy when Hidayat—who’s been coughing in earlier scenes—tells Mir that he’s got cancer, and has little time left. “Cigarette pee nahin, zindagi ke kash shayad lambe le liye (Never smoked, but maybe I took too long a drag on life),” is how he puts it, a line the director’s father, Gulzar, would have been proud to pen.

In his place as intelligence-gatherer under the nose of the Pakistanis, Hidayat proposes his daughter, who’s studying in Delhi University. And so Sehmat (Alia Bhatt) is called home, and needs surprisingly little convincing to agree to her father’s plan for her to marry Syed’s son Iqbal (Vicky Kaushal), also in the military, and become India’s “eyes and ears in Pakistan”. Mir takes over her training, teaching the 20-year-old how to bug a room, use Morse code, defend herself and use a revolver. Soon, she’s married and taken across the border—an Indian spy (from an extremely patriotic Kashmiri family, the film takes care to tell us) in a Pakistani household.

There’s another kind of infiltration happening here, of what has become a hyper-nationalistic, triumphalist genre by a more humanistic, shaded kind of filmmaking. Gulzar showed a knack for coiled narratives and vivid character sketches in Talvar (2015)—qualities Raazi shares as well—but what’s even more striking about her latest film is its even-handedness. Sehmat’s new family is painted with an empathetic brush; Iqbal, for instance, is as accommodating a groom as one could hope for. This gives Raazi that extra frisson when Sehmat begins her spying—far from being encouraged to hate the “enemy”, we actually don’t want some of them to be hurt. It’s worth noting that every major character, Indian and Pakistani, gets a country-above-all-else speech, and everyone delivers it with the same conviction.

Like she did in Talvar, Gulzar assembles and marshals an expert ensemble. A detail-oriented director like her is well-suited to an actor like Bhatt, who has a knack of making the tiniest gestures count. Bhatt handles the big emotional scenes fine—one particular reaction after having escaped detection is spectacular—but her Sehmat is built out of little glances and the sort of paranoid watchfulness that’s always ready to spring into action. Sharma and Kapur have a wonderful world-weariness, and Ahlawat (best known before this for his Shahid Khan in Gangs of Wasseypur) is a revelation, playing Mir, square of spectacles and manner, with great dryness.

Not all the narrative twists make complete sense—Sehmat’s brief career as a music teacher and a bold bit of impersonation are more wishful than plausible. Gulzar’s partner on the screenplay (she wrote the dialogue herself) is Bhavani Iyer, whose Lootera (2013) was criticised for its implausibility and, as a result, was sadly underappreciated for its emotionally complex approach to the thriller. Raazi—like Lootera, like Talvar—is a thriller about the disintegration of a family, but one that’s alive to the intricacies of language, the sensuality of an ankle bracelet, the human desires set aside in service of the nation. And the hopefulness of cords unsevered: a line from a prayer by the “spiritual father of Pakistan” and composer of "Saare Jahan Se Accha", Iqbal (“Lab pe aati hai duaa bann ke tamanna meri, zindagi shamma ki soorat ho khudaya meri”), making its way into the song "Ae Watan".

This review appeared in Mint.

Omerta: Review

There’s a scene some way into Omerta which serves as a reminder that this isn’t the first Hansal Mehta film to feature terrorist Omar Sheikh. In Shahid (2012), would-be-lawyer Shahid Azmi (Rajkummar Rao) is serving time in Delhi’s Tihar jail. There, he’s reprimanded, along with other Muslim inmates, by a bearded man in spectacles for eating during Ramzan. The man later introduces himself as Omar Sheikh, and tries to recruit Azmi to the jihadi cause.

In Omerta, Mehta recreates the same scene, down to some lines being reproduced word for word. It’s Rao as Sheikh this time, and though Azmi doesn’t appear in the scene, it’s mildly surreal to see the same actor who played the prey six years ago now playing the hunter. There’s a fair amount in Omerta that’ll remind viewers of Shahid: the unadorned visual style, the unsettlingly quick editing, the passages which show the making of a terrorist—though in Shahid, which only spends 10 minutes on Azmi’s flirtation with the cause, radicalization comes about because of personal experience, while in Omerta, it’s the suffering of distant others that gives birth to violent ideology.

Omerta begins in 1994, with Sheikh befriending, and then abducting, Czech, American and British citizens in Delhi and making ransom demands, scenes that’ll inform his later kidnapping of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. Later, in a series of flashbacks, we’re shown how he went from a student at the London School of Economics to a dreaded terrorist with links to Jaish-e-Mohammed and Al-Qaeda. When we’re introduced to the younger Sheikh, he’s already on the cusp of radicalization, a well-off, serious man troubled by the slaughter of Bosnian Muslims by Serbs in 1992. Despite his alarmed father’s pleas to finish his studies first, it only takes a few nudges from the local maulana to indoctrinate Omar.

We see Sheikh in Pakistan, in jihadi boot camps in Afghanistan, in training with the ISI. Through it all, he maintains the same unnerving seriousness and cold drive. Had the film started from a little earlier in his life, when he was possibly less certain in his convictions, might this have been a richer study in deepening religious fanaticism? In Omerta, there’s no hardening of ideology, just the accumulation of skills and execution of plans. Mehta details the set-up at various levels of a terrorist organization carefully, and there are some tense sequences, but not much engagement at a psychological level. The real-life Sheikh might have been charismatic, but Rao’s portrayal stops at scarily intense—even when he’s trying to ingratiate himself, he comes on a little too strong.

Then there’s the accent. Rao gamely adopts a British twang whenever Sheikh—a Londoner for much of his early life—is speaking in English, but he just doesn’t sound comfortable. You can sense the actor’s relief whenever he slips in Hindi or his regular spoken English, which he turns on when he’s talking to Pearl—a strange case of an ostensibly put-on accent sounding more “correct” than the character’s natural one.

Mehta’s frequent juggling of timeline and location means the jag and jump of the filmic technique matches the fragmented nature of the narrative. The chaos is needed, for though there’s some shock in Omerta, there’s little surprise. By concentrating on how terror agents operate on a daily basis (some of the better scenes show Sheikh baiting his quarry with chess and a guided tour of Red Fort or by helping them bargain in a curio store), Mehta offers a ground-level view of terrorism that’s less jingoistic than what Indian cinema usually has to offer. What you don’t get is the immersion into a character’s psyche that marked the previous Mehta biopics, Shahid and Aligarh (2015). In the end, we’re not much closer to understanding the man holding up a decapitated head than we were at the start.

This review appeared in Mint.

Avengers: Infinity War: Review

For a while now, Marvel has been issuing trigger warnings about impending demises in Avengers: Infinity War —with good reason, it turns out. Not only are several prominent players bid farewell, the film is consumed with the prospect of mortality. More than one character tasks a loved one with killing them if things go bad. Another admits to having little to live for besides revenge. And while they go about their task with respect, directors Anthony and Joe Russo aren’t paralysed by the prospect of dispatching fan favourites—many of the deaths are sudden, few are lingered upon.

Behind the culling is a franchise decision years in the making. Infinity Wars is the penultimate offering in “phase three” of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a slate-cleaning exercise before a new band of superheroes is brought together over another set of films. You’d expect the old roots to be pulled out first—fans have been debating the likelihood of either Captain America (Chris Evans) or Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) dying at the end—though if Thanos (Josh Brolin) has his way, there will be destruction without discrimination, a purge free of bias.

Thanos, a giant purple being from Titan, has set out to destroy half of all life in the universe because there are too many mouths to feed at present—a most unlikely manifestation of what 18th century economist Thomas Robert Malthus called positive checks on population growth. To do this, Thanos must gather the Infinity Stones, all-powerful gems that Marvel has scattered across its various story arcs. These six stones are the ballgame: Thanos must have them all to wreak the sort of havoc he wants to; the Avengers, Guardians and other superheroes like Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and Spider-Man (Tom Holland) must prevent him from getting to them.

In Captain America: Civil War (2016), Marvel’s last mashup, the Russos displayed a knack for juggling universes and personality types. Here, tasked with stirring an even bigger melting pot, they emerge with more coherence than one might expect, pairing Stark and Strange (the best sparring partner Downey’s had in ages), Thor and the Guardians, Cap’s team and T’Challa. This opens up possibilities for visual and aural flexibility that are only cursorily explored—the trippy effects in some of scenes with Doctor Strange are reminiscent of Scott Derrickson’s 2016 film, a hooky radio hit signals the presence of the Guardians, and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) seems to have retained some of the humour of Thor: Ragnarok (2017).

Infinity War occasionally rises above all the information it must convey and offers memorable individual scenes: Rocket acting as reluctant shrink to Thor; the extra second the camera lingers on Tom Holland’s face when Tony Stark mock-knights Spidey and tells him he’s an Avenger; the pained interactions between Thanos and his daughter Gamora (Zoe Saldana). But there’s too much business to take care of, and little time to pause and let the viewer take it all in. The narrative is affecting (assuming you’re already invested in the series) but the treatment is unimaginative: good for instant tears or cheers, but not, I think, the stuff you’d remember 20 years later.

The denouement left the audience, which had been whooping in all the appropriate places, quiet on their way out. Maybe some of them were wondering if what they’d seen was going to be reversed, at least in part, in the sequel. As a piece of filmmaking, Infinity War is efficient, professional—the sort of qualities prized by studio heads and fans who resent authorial personality superseding source material. Its boldness lies in the decisions taken at the “universe” level. The cutting of multiple threads shows how much confidence Marvel has in its ability to forge a new set of relationships. Thanos, immortal, achieved through thanatos, death.

This review appeared in Mint. 

Beyond the Clouds: Review

Not many in the Mumbai film industry today speak of Salaam Bombay!, which is unfortunate. Mira Nair’s film, made in 1988 and winner of the Caméra d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, has aged better than some of the other parallel and indie cinema being made at the time. Today, its street-level view of Mumbai feels like a vital bridge from Dharavi and Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro in the 1980s to Satya and Slumdog Millionaire in the ‘90s and 2000s.

On the evidence of Beyond the Clouds, I’d hazard a guess that Majid Majidi has seen Nair’s film. The Iranian director’s first feature in Hindi feels like an updated version of Salaam Bombay!, with its gritty visual aesthetic and its focus on children living on (or just off) Mumbai’s streets. Its protagonist Amir (Ishaan Khatter) could be an older version of Chaipau, the young protagonist of Nair’s film, his shyness eroded and replaced by street-smarts and cynicism. A brothel is a prominent setting in both films, and the sale of a young girl to a pimp occurs in both. But there’s one big difference: Salaam Bombay! is empathetic but resolutely clear-eyed, whereas Majidi – as with his previous work in Iran – doesn’t shy away from sentiment.

The opening minutes of the film announce that Majidi’s a tourist here, as Amir drives past Mumbai landmarks: Marine Drive, Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, the Gateway of India. When we first meet him, Amir is a bouncy optimist, convinced that the hard drugs he’s selling and the deals he’s making with a scary pimp (Shashank Shende) will be his ticket out of the chawl. It’s difficult not to be reminded of Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire in the first 30 minutes, not just because the score is by A.R. Rahman, but also because of the propulsion and hustle of the filmmaking. When the police bust in on Amir and his friends, Majidi and cinematographer Anil Mehta construct a breathless chase through gullies and markets, ending in the giant clothes-wash where Tara (Malavika Mohanan), Amir’s sister, works.

All this rude energy is quite thrilling—and a little surprising, if your only exposure to Majidi has been lyrical films like Children of Heaven and The Colour of Paradise. Unfortunately, little that follows in Beyond the Clouds can match up to this passage. Tara is assaulted by Akshi (Gautam Ghose), a co-worker who’s besotted with her, and strikes him in self-defence—all shown as shadow-play behind a flapping sheet in a sea of drying clothes. She’s carted off to jail, where she’ll remain for life if Akshi dies. Amir—whose parents are dead and whose relationship with his sister is complicated—resolves to find a way to get her out of jail, but worse is to come for both.

Even as the misery piles up and the siblings become increasingly frantic, screenwriter Mehran Kashani introduces a key Majidi motif: the innocence of children. Tara takes over the care of her sickly cellmate’s young boy, while Amir, in a strange narrative twist, finds himself looking after the bedridden Akshi’s aged mother (G.V. Sharada) and two daughters (he also buys medicines to keep Akshi alive, so that he can testify to his sister’s innocence). The slow build to the four of them forming a makeshift family might strike you as moving, or you might feel – as I did – that it’s a little too rose-tinted. The preciousness is exacerbated by Rahman’s score, poured over the emotional moments like syrup.

In his first lead role, Ishaan Khatter (half-brother to actor Shahid Kapoor) is compellingly fraught; the only time it’s clear he doesn’t belong to the world his character is from is when Amir speaks to Akshi’s daughter in broken English which isn’t quite broken enough. Mohanan, sidelined in the film’s second half, has to make do with scenes in which her character is hysterical or where the focus is on her young cellmate. Tannishtha Chatterjee, the best-known member of the cast, plays a bad cough. Vishal Bhardwaj wrote the Hindi dialogue, but you wouldn’t have guessed it.

In the final moments of the film, there are extended scenes of Holi celebrations. You can feel Majidi’s delight at being able to capture all that colour and uninhibited movement. His is a cinema of ripeness, and India is a logical place for him to have made a film. Yet, had it not been Majidi making this, it’s debatable whether Beyond the Clouds, which feels like an artily rendered patchwork of stock Mumbai film moments, would have been on anyone’s radar.

This review appeared in Mint Lounge.

Baaghi 2: Review

Of all the ways Baaghi 2 could have declared its chest-beating love for India, it chose one of the most distasteful. After the opening sequence, in which Neha (Disha Patani) is badly beaten and left by the side of the road by carjackers, the action shifts to Kashmir and army officer Ranveer Pratap Singh (Tiger Shroff) thrashing militants—or is it stone-pelters?—in the snow. The next scene shows him using one of these men as a human shield, tied to the hood of his jeep to protect him from an angry crowd. Irrespective of where you stand on the moral implications of such an action (which mirrors an actual incident that took place last year in Kashmir), it takes a certain amped-up, dumbed-down outlook to appropriate it with so much glee.

Ahmed Khan’s film isn’t a sequel to Baaghi (2016), just an expansion of its eternal themes of women finding themselves in trouble and Shroff levelling buildings and demolishing private armies to save them. Neha and Ranveer, or Ronnie, fall in love in college. Though they break up, it takes one letter from her four years later to bring him to Goa. It turns out Neha’s daughter, Rhea, was also in the car that day, and was kidnapped. The problem is, everyone else, including her husband (Darshan Kumar), insists she never had a daughter at all, that her head injuries have turned her delusional.

As Ronnie tries to wrap his easily steamed head around the case, we’re introduced to Neha’s cokehead brother-in-law (Prateik Babbar), a hippie ACP (Randeep Hooda, in on the joke) and his boss (Manoj Bajpayee), and a garage owner (Deepak Dobriyal) with a bum leg, clearly inspired by the Bryan Cranston character in Drive. It’s obvious who the guilty parties are, but it doesn’t matter—even fans aren’t going in expecting Chinatown; they’ll settle for Shroff busting heads and a few moves. “Not all wars are decided by strength,” one of the antagonists tells Ronnie. “Some are won with intelligence.” Faced with that horrifying thought, Shroff grabs the speaker by the throat and slams him against the wall.

A multitude of eye-rolls would be too few for the moment when our hero, in the process of beating up an entire police station, finds time to catch a miniature India flag mid-air and place it safely on a table. The ridiculousness of such scenes almost distracts from the noxious nature of this film, which dilutes its near-constant violence with cheaply bought nationalism. Towards the end of the film, a sobbing Ronnie—who’s just laid waste to a jungle base crawling with armed militia—is told that the war is over. What war?

This review appeared in Mint.

Hichki: Review

After Hindi Medium, Sidharth P Malhotra’s Hichki is the second film in 10 months whose narrative hinges on the Right to Education Act. This isn’t surprising—after all, our films have always felt they have the right to educate. Hichki’s opening minutes are a quick lesson in Tourette’s, a condition Naina (Rani Mukerji) has had since childhood. “Do you know anything about Tourette syndrome?” she asks the panel interviewing her for a teaching job (they haven’t). Not the most elegant screenwriting solution, and there are more lessons to come. We’re whisked into a flashback; young Naina is called on stage by her school principal after her vocal tics disrupt a play. Instead of reprimanding her as we assume he will, he says, “You come to school to learn, but today we have learnt something from you.”

After several rejections, Naina is hired as a teacher at St Notker’s, an elite Mumbai high school. This is only partly due to her qualifications, the principal admits. They’re in urgent need of a teacher to take charge of class 9F, a class with 14 “difficult” students from the nearby slum. Disadvantaged students, idealistic teacher: if you’ve seen To Sir, With Love or Dangerous Minds or Short Term 12, you’ll have a fair idea where this is headed. Thirty minutes or so of teacher trying to win class over, confrontation, tipping point, then a final sprint towards discovering of potential.

This might sound like a harsh assessment of an earnest film, but Hichki often comes across as parachute filmmaking—dropping in on a problem just long enough to prick the viewer’s conscience and make them feel like they’re watching something meaningful, but avoiding any sort of meaningful engagement. When no one turns up for a parent-teacher meeting, Naina goes to her students’ houses. The sequence that follows is a smooth assuaging of liberal guilt—not one parent voices the uncomfortable but believable opinion that they’d rather have their child out of school and earning.

As a contrast to 9F, screenwriters Malhotra, Anckur Chaudhry, Ambar Hadap and Ganesh Pandit populate section 9A with posh, fresh-faced students who look down on their economically disadvantaged peers (whether 9B, C, D and E are on a decreasing scale of nastiness is never addressed). The writers also give Naina an opposite number, the supercilious Wadia (Neeraj Kabi), who pops up every few scenes to mock her unconventional teaching techniques (boiled eggs to explain parabolas, basketballs for potential energy) and employ a series of classist euphemisms for her charges (he drops all pretence at the end, calling them “municipal trash”).

Cartoonish though he is, more than a few readers who’ve attended private school will remember teachers like Wadia—instinctively, unthinkingly class-conscious. If they’re being honest, some will also see glimpses of themselves in the students of 9A. Just because Hichki is guileless and corny doesn’t mean it isn’t knocking on the right door. But Hindi message films aren’t as simplistic as they used to be; just compare the detailed environments and relatively complex characters of Nil Battey Sannata or Secret Superstar with the generic slum and archetypes in this film.

The actors playing the students are wonderful, turning even the rank sentimentality of the later scenes into something watchable. Had the film been less interested in the un-illuminating struggle between Naina and her critical father, we might have been able to get to know the 14 better. But this is ultimately a film about Naina—her students, her solutions, her journey, her hichkis.

This review appeared in Mint. 

The real Deals

After years of playing stellar bass and second fiddle to Black Francis in the Pixies, one of the most idiosyncratic alt-rock bands of the 1980s, Kim Deal decided to branch out on her own. She recorded a set of demos with Tanya Donelly (of The Throwing Muses) and violinist Carrie Bradley. With Josephine Wiggs on bass, this became the first Breeders album, Pod (1990). The following year, the Pixies disbanded, Donnelly and Bradley left The Breeders, and Kelley Deal (Kim’s sister) and Jim McPherson joined. This was the line-up that recorded Last Splash, arguably the band’ best album, bursting with hooks and eccentricities and supplying an alt-rock barnstormer for the ages in Cannonball.

Despite the critical success of Last Splash, The Breeders went their separate ways in 1994. The Deal sisters reunited for two albums, Title TK (2001) and Mountain Battles (2008). But the Last Splash line-up, the tightest iteration of the band, never got back together—until now. On All Nerve, their first studio album in a decade, the group plays to its strengths: the subversion of rock and pop clichés, the off-kilter humour, and Kim’s singularly charming voice, which is always threatening to veer off pitch.

Nervous Mary is pure Breeders, with its churning riff, plangent guitars and frankly strange lyrics (Madrid in my nose/black lung in my hand). It makes sense that the album would open with it, though I wish they’d opted for track 2 instead. “Good morning!” their founder-singer-guitarist yells, kicking off Wait In The Car, a blast of pure punk pop and Kim Deal weirdness (Always struggle with the right word/Meow meow meow meow meow). It’s over in 2 minutes, but it sounds like the work of a young band, and like the old band we know, which is all one can really ask for.

The loud/soft dynamic in the songs of The Breeders (and the Pixies before them) was hugely influential—Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain was a vocal fan of both bands. Spacewoman is the best example of this on the album, with the song’s gentle verses giving way to grungy guitars in the chorus. Dawn: Making An Effort shimmers unexpectedly, like a shoegaze number; Howl At The Summit has the demented whine of I Am The Walrus (an outright Beatles cover, Happiness Is A Warm Gun, featured on Pod). The one cover on this album is a rarity: German commune rock band Amon Düül II’s Archangel Thunderbird. It’s more straightforward than their cover—almost a critique—of Aerosmith’s Lord Of The Thighs, but is nonetheless dynamic, with McPherson’s frenetic drumming recalling his work on Cannonball.

All Nerve clocks in at 31 minutes; six of its 11 tracks are under the 3-minute mark. Given this relatively slim running time, you might wish Skinhead #2 built to a point, or that the menacing Metagoth didn’t sound like a retread of the Pixies’ Gouge Away. But these are small quibbles. It’s invigorating to be in The Breeders’ company again, especially since their sound—which informs the approach of hip new artists like The Courtneys and Courtney Barnett—has hardly dated. Because the band has dropped albums after long hiatuses, they’ve never had to reinvent themselves. As a reminder, a cheery “Good morning” is all that’s needed.

This review appeared in Mint Lounge.

Building a safe house for cinema

The tattered reel of Konkani film ‘Mogacho Aunndo’ when it arrived at the foundation

Mick Newnham is scaring the kids. A former conservation manager at the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia, with a touch of Robin Williams in his manner, he has run through slip discs, spores and spiders, and has now reached snakes as a possible hazard that a film archivist might face. “If you think about it, film archives are great for snakes,” he says. “They are cool, have plenty of dark spaces to stay, and there are always rats, which is a major food source.”

In another room, David Walsh, consultant with the Imperial War Museum in the UK, is passing out old film stock to demonstrate different aspect ratios. These sessions are part of a two-day “Film Preservation In Practice” workshop in Mumbai, organized by the Film Heritage Foundation (FHF), a not-for-profit started in 2014 by Shivendra Singh Dungarpur. Classes on film handling, rescue, repair and preservation are conducted by Walsh and Newnham. Participants have come from the National Film Development Corporation, to learn how to save films in their collection; from FHF’s workshop earlier this year in Chennai; from various state archives, or private ones run by the Tata group, the State Bank of India or the Bombay Natural History Society.

This is a shorter version of the annual workshops the FHF has conducted since 2015. “We’re the only institute in India that has developed film preservation not as a national cause but also as an opportunity of skill development,” Dungarpur says. Apart from the government-run National Film Archive of India (NFAI), the FHF is arguably the only body in the country involved in serious film preservation. And it’s the only organization, Dungarpur says, that is involved in education in the field of preservation.

Only a minuscule number of the 1,700 Indian films made in the silent era survive today. Raja Harishchandra, the first Indian feature film, exists as a re-shot version, and only in part. The first talkie, Alam Ara, doesn’t exist at all. Ever so often, there’s a report of a fire destroying an archive, or of cans rotting in a godown. In a country as inattentive to its cinematic heritage as India, it isn’t surprising that few within (and virtually no one outside) the film industry knows of the FHF. This might change next week, when the foundation brings director Christopher Nolan to Mumbai for a series of events.

A trip by the director of Inception and Dunkirk is certainly a coup for the FHF, more so because Nolan seems to be coming with the express purpose of talking about filming on celluloid and arguing for its continuation. He’s a rare Hollywood director who prefers to shoot on film rather than digital. On 1 April, he will be in conversation with Tacita Dean, an acclaimed conceptual artist and experimental director, at the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA). Dean is a passionate advocate of photochemical film, writing in The Guardian in 2011: “What we are asking for is coexistence: that analogue film might be allowed to remain an option for those who want it, and for the ascendancy of one not to have to mean the extinguishing of the other.”

Potentially more wide-reaching than the NCPA talk is the closed-room conference that Nolan and Dean will be taking part in on 31 March, along with 35 industry professionals—“major influencers”, in Dungarpur’s words. It’s a heady list—Amitabh Bachchan, Gulzar, Aamir Khan, Shah Rukh Khan, Ajay Bijli, other actors, directors and technicians—with a specific agenda: the continued use and preservation of film as a medium.

Dungarpur hopes Nolan’s trip will lead to increased exposure for the FHF, but, more importantly, also open up new sources of funding. Rescuing and archiving film and cinema-related material is an expensive business. When Dungarpur started the organization with his wife, Teesha Cherian, it was largely with his own money (he was a successful ad film-maker). Since then, they’ve built two facilities: one for non-film material (in Tardeo), the other for films (in Navi Mumbai). The film vault houses some 500 films; it can accommodate about 500 more. Dungarpur is considering moving it to another, larger space. How much does it cost to set up a film archive? It depends on the films being preserved, he says, but Rs5 crore is a reasonable estimate.

The workshops have received sponsorships, and there have been individual donations, but funds have been hard to come by. “For the non-filmic material, our conservator, Priya Kapoor, comes from Delhi,” Dungarpur says. “The restoration, it costs a lot of money. We have to keep the material in temperature- and humidity-controlled vaults. The same goes for the films.” Where filmic material is concerned, he stresses that he’s only talking about rescue, repair and preservation. Restoration—painstaking, research-intensive restoration, the kind that Janus Films achieved with its stunning transfer of Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy—isn’t possible to achieve in this country, he says.

Dungarpur has nevertheless been an integral part of restoration efforts. In 2010, he was approached by the World Cinema Project, an offshoot of Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation. The director was keen to restore Uday Shankar’s Kalpana (1948), but after two years of trying, they still hadn’t been able to acquire the negative. Dungarpur realized that this was a rare chance. “I knew that if Scorsese restores Kalpana, it will open the doors for the entire preservation of the country’s (cinematic) heritage,” he says. He made repeated trips to the NFAI over six months before they handed over the dupe negative—a duplicate print. The film was restored at the Cineteca di Bologna, and premiered at Cannes in 2012. He again collaborated with the Film Foundation to help restore Sri Lankan director Lester James Peries’ Nidhanaya (1972). In mid-2014, months before the FHF conducted its first workshop, Scorsese wrote them an enthusiastic letter of support.

Irish film-maker and writer Mark Cousins (The Story Of Film, I Am Belfast), who’s on the advisory council of FHF, placed the organisation’s efforts in perspective. Over email, he wrote: “At the Edinburgh International Film Festival, I did something called The Paradise Movie Hall of Kolkata, an immersive season on Bengal films. I was shocked at the poor state of preservation of many of the prints. And when I was making The Story of Film, I was again dismayed at the fact that even Indian movies that I considered classics were not ‘safe’. There seemed to be lots of agreement that something had to be done. One of the things that must happen is a mentality shift. In general it has to be better understood that one of the great things that India did in the 20th Century was cinema. Its filmic heritage must be seen as precious.”

The FHF office is an oasis of cinephilia in busy Tardeo: here a Mitchell camera, there a Polish poster for Luis Bunuel’s That Obscure Object Of Desire (1977). On another floor, in the non-film archive, an employee is examining photographs with a microscope. Another is working on a piece of film. I’m shown the warped reel of Govind Nihalani’s Drishti (1990) in a dehumidifier, where it will lie for months until it’s fit to work on. We move on to the vaults housing the non-film material. Shelf after shelf is opened—photographs, posters, lobby cards, song booklets, censor certificates, magazines, organized by year, language, sometimes by actor or director. I see, for the first time, a physical copy of Filmindia, a cinema journal founded in the 1930s, in which K.A. Abbas wrote criticism before he wrote Raj Kapoor films.

During the Nazi occupation of France, archivist Henri Langlois worked to save countless classic films, hiding them when he learnt of an SS raid, getting actor Simone Signoret to wheel film canisters in a baby carriage past Nazi troops. Dungarpur mentions Langlois several times in our conversations. If they have one thing in common, it’s the idea of film conservation as a matter of life and death.

Raid: Review

Raj Kumar Gupta’s Raid has maybe an hour of worthwhile material stretched to a trying 128 minutes. The film, which unfolds over a few days in 1981 in Uttar Pradesh, pits an honest Indian Revenue Services officer, Amay Patnaik (Ajay Devgn), against a grassroots political operator whom everyone calls Tauji (Saurabh Shukla). Operating on a tip, Patnaik, who’s been transferred 49 times in the past for his unbending honesty, launches an early morning raid on Tauji’s house, where 420 crore rupees are allegedly stashed. A battle of wills ensues, between the good officers and Tauji, and also between co-writer Ritesh Shah and the Hindi language to find yet another way to say that Patnaik is a very dutiful boy.

The qualities that (presumably) make Patnaik such an excellent IT officer are the same ones that make him a taxing movie lead. Upright and uptight, he can barely make it through a scene without bringing up the rulebook (when the lead character in Newton did that, he was seen as fussy and inflexible, whereas Patnaik practically has a halo around his head). In one scene, he carries his own bottle of cheap rum to the club because drinking someone else’s expensive booze is against his principles. It’s a mild surprise when his wife mentions that he’s an atheist, but then the next line is: “You only believe in Bharat mata.”

For a while, it seems like Patnaik has received a bad tip. His team turns Tauji’s home inside-out, but find nothing. But then, when Patnaik seems to have exhausted every option, it’s revealed that he’s been sitting on vital information. The withholding of this from us, the audience, serves some dramatic purpose, but it makes little logical sense. Had Patnaik used this information earlier (and it’s the sort that would form the basis for a raid like this), there would have been less fruitless searching. It’s presented as a last-minute brainwave, but it’s really just bad planning by Patnaik, or some casual writing by Gupta and Shah.

This might be a mild spoiler—though it arrives well before the halfway mark—but Patnaik and his team do eventually start unearthing Tauji’s hidden wealth. Even as the increasingly frantic strongman tries to call in political favours, one hiding place after another is exposed. From nothing being found, the film moves on to show us everything being found. Most of these scenes poke fun at Tauji’s despicable kin, but given how close they are to caricatures, it’s difficult even to feel contempt for them.

One sequence in particular seemed to underline the film’s attempts to over-work even its good ideas. A gun goes off by mistake and gold pieces start raining down from a hole in the ceiling. The panic on the faces of the family members seems genuine, and had the scene concluded here, it would have been a solid gag. But then Devgn comes forward, takes his time, shoots at the ceiling – once, twice. The same outcome, but with minimal payoff.

Shukla does everything he can to breathe life into the entitled bully he’s playing—his amorality is much more engaging than Patnaik’s rectitude. Devgn’s rise as a mass hero in recent years has coincided with a narrowing of his range as an actor. He’s blandly professional here, and I felt more for Amit Sial’s morally compromised subordinate than for Devgn’s adarsh balak. When Raid’s trailer released, there was some speculation that it would be similar to Special 26, a sly, twisty 2013 film about income tax raids. If only.

Lady Bird: Review

Greta Gerwig’s first solo film as writer-director, Lady Bird, is tart and funny, occasionally moving and efficiently put together. It’s the sort of semi-precious, expertly curated indie that Hollywood churns out with ease and regularity now—the children of Little Miss Sunshine and Noah Baumbach. Compared to the other festival breakout of 2017, Jordan Peele’s Get Out, Gerwig’s film doesn’t strike me as particularly novel, but reviews were uniformly enthusiastic when it released in the US, and when awards season arrived, it was a contender. It won two Golden Globes, including Best Musical or Comedy Motion Picture, and has five Oscar nominations (Best Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Actress, Supporting Actress).

In the opening minutes of the film, we see Christine (Saoirse Ronan) and her mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf), in their car. They’ve just finished listening, tearfully, to The Grapes of Wrath. No sooner do they begin to talk, though, than they start arguing. Christine listens, fumes, and suddenly opens the door and throws herself out of the moving vehicle. Gerwig cuts from Marion’s panicked yell to Christine’s hand in plaster. This extreme action isn’t mentioned for the rest of the film. It isn’t supposed to be revealing of Christine’s pathology, it’s just a gag; Steve Carrel did the exact same thing in Crazy Stupid Love.

Christine—or “Lady Bird”, as she’s styled herself—isn’t suicidal or emotionally disturbed, she’s just desperate to leave her hometown of Sacramento and go study in a place with “culture”, away from her hyper-critical mother. Her family isn’t well-off: her father, Larry (Tracy Letts), has been laid off, and Marion works as a nurse and keeps a wary eye on expenses. We aren’t privy to how good a student Christine is—she’s shown applying for scholarships, but never studying. Instead, we see her in the company of her best friend, Julie (Beanie Feldstein), and the two boys she falls for, sweet Sondheim-singing Danny (Lucas Hedges) and sour existentialist bassist Kyle (Timothée Chalamet).

There are some teen movie clichés this film can’t dodge—the rich kids are affected and mean, while the less well-off ones are nicer human beings (Danny comes from money, but he’s vulnerable, so he’s allowed to be nice as well). Most of the characters, though, are sketched with empathy: The nun (played by Lois Smith) who runs the Catholic school Lady Bird attends reacts to a couple close-dancing with “Six inches for the Holy Spirit”, but is broadminded enough to forgive an ill-advised prank played on her. Larry, though wonderfully played by Letts, isn’t too different from the sympathetic dads essayed by J.K. Simmons and Stanley Tucci in Juno and Easy A, but Marion is wholly memorable. Despite the precise grenades she keeps lobbing her daughter’s way, you can sense Gerwig’s respect for the character, whose love for her daughter is inextricably linked with trying to improve her at every opportunity . Metcalf, a well-known theatre actor, is up for an Oscar; she deserves it for her matter-of-fact reading of “My mother was an abusive alcoholic” (that this is the capper to an argument over unfolded clothes gives you some idea of how quickly the conversations between mother and daughter in this film escalate).

Lady Bird herself is a well-realised creation, both driven and uncoordinated in her search for cultural and social uplift. She’s appealing uncool, flubbing her attempts at flirting with both her crushes, yet also intriguing enough—with her streaked hair and eccentric speech—to attract them anyway. Her relationship with her mother is the film’s through-line; the hurt experienced on both sides feels vivid and genuine. Their sparring cuts through the routines of heartache and reconciliation that are supposed to indicate Lady Bird’s growth as a person but are too gentle and politically correct to have much of an impact.

Instead of comparing Lady Bird to other Oscar nominees or speculating on its chances, I’ll end by recommending a film from last year it reminded me of. Columbus is entirely unlike Lady Bird except that it’s also about a young girl (Haley Lu Richardson, in a luminous turn that deserved wider notice) in a small town whose dreams of studying at a prestigious university are complicated by her family’s financial circumstances. With its low-wattage emotional pull and precise visual compositions, the film, directed by video essayist Kogonada, seeps into your brain and rests there quietly, unlike the more accessible, forthright invasion of Lady Bird. This isn’t to say that either film is “better” than the other, just that there exists a whole world of cinema beyond the Oscars and the kind of films it deems worthy.

This review appeared in Mint. 

Only the lonely

On Body And Soul opens with a stunning vision: snow falling in a forest, everything blue and white apart from two deer walking among the tall, thin trees. The male deer approaches the female, and, after a few moments, places his neck over her back in what seems like an affectionate gesture. The female leaves the frame, and we stare for a few seconds at the male, standing alone, before the film’s title appears on screen.

This winter scene recurs through Ildikó Enyedi’s film, winner of the Golden Bear at last year’s Berlinale and in the running for the foreign language Oscar. It’s revealed to be a dream that comes, independently, to Endre (Géza Morcsányi), a loner with a withered arm who is the financial director of an abattoir, and to Maria (Alexandra Borbély), socially awkward, newly hired as the slaughterhouse’s quality inspector. What Endre and Maria do with this knowledge is a rebuke to the predictability of mainstream romantic comedy, but picking apart the film’s plot—an eccentric assemblage that includes graphic scenes of animal slaughter and the theft of “mating powder”—is unlikely to be useful beyond a point. One might, more easily, surrender to the precise visual beauty (cinematographer Máté Herbai repeatedly capturing Borbély’s clear-eyed gaze in reflective glass) and its gently magical realist tendencies.

An identical dream viewed by more than one person at a time is a way of describing cinema itself. A film with a similarly fantastical outlook at this year’s Oscars—which also begins with a dream full of portent—is Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape Of Water. As different as they are in their storytelling, the two films could be in conversation with each other. Each features a pair of outsiders who, against the backdrop of a callous, cruel workplace, find each other under extraordinary circumstances. And, in an era when the big screen has been taken over by the formulaic and the low-risk, they’re both gloriously, inventively cinematic: one lush and scored end-to-end, the other spare and brittle.

In Del Toro’s film, a front-runner for the Best Picture Oscar, the romance is between a mute cleaner at a research facility (luminously played by Sally Hawkins) and a merman-like creature (Doug Jones) held captive by the military there. Because this is a big Hollywood production (and because Del Toro prefers broad allegories), what is left elliptical in On Body And Soul is underlined here. For instance, there’s no antagonist in Enyedi’s film, whereas in The Shape Of Water Michael Shannon plays a candy-popping maniac. The brutal tactics of this government agent are less interesting than the film identifying him as hopelessly all-American, from his impulsive purchase of a Cadillac after a sales spiel to telling his son, sans irony, that jet-packs will be a reality because “this is America”.

Both films have deep sympathy for the broken and the outlier: On Body And Soul has Endre’s dead arm and Maria’s possible autism, while the heroes in The Shape Of Water are a mute Hispanic woman, her best friends, a black woman and a gay artist, and a Communist in 1960s America. The two films are also united in their depiction of loneliness as a functioning (if undesired) lifestyle. Through repetition and attention to detail, it shows us the clockwork routines that the lonely construct and live by in order to keep their days full: alarms set, eggs boiled, time set aside for self-love. Each film builds up to the involvement of the partner in that routine. What’s the point of dreaming if you can’t tell anyone about it the next day?

This piece was written in the run-up to the 2018 Oscars. It appeared in Mint Lounge.

Kendrick Lamar’s sonic Wakanda

More than anyone apart from Lil Wayne who’s been called The Best Rapper In The World, Kendrick Lamar has rhymes to spare. When Ryan Coogler screened footage from his Marvel movie, Black Panther, for Lamar, the rapper was supposed to contribute a couple of tracks. But Lamar liked what he saw and took on curation and co-production duties. The result is Black Panther: The Album, less a companion piece to the film than a mercurial riff on its themes and concerns (both this and Ludwig Goransson’s score for the film are available on iTunes).

Though the film’s setting is Africa, the album doesn’t go the Graceland route. The sound is grounded in hip hop, dancehall and R&B, with African rhythms and melodies weaving in and out (instead of overwhelming and raising tricky questions of cultural appropriation). Lamar takes on the personalities of T’Challa, the Black Panther, and his opposite number, Killmonger: The title track has a gravity befitting the serious new king of Wakanda, while King’s Dead, with a rapid-fire flow, has the unstable anger of his challenger (Fuck integrity, fuck your pedigree, fuck your feelin’s, fuck your culture). The two are united in the last lines of Seasons: I am T’Challa / I am Killmonger / One world, one God, one family / Celebration.

The polyglot nature of the Black Panther soundtrack comes through in its voices as much as in its music. Gqom artist Babes Wodumo sings on the bouncy Redemption; rapper Saudi does a verse (partly in Zulu) on X; Sjava also sings in Zulu and then in English on Seasons. And 20-year-old British singer Jorja Smith summons the ghost of Amy Winehouse.

Vince Staples, whose BagBak was used so effectively in the film’s trailer, performs (with South African rapper Yugen Blakrok) the similarly propulsive Opps. Two newer artists make striking contributions: Smith with the neo-soul I Am and rap outfit SOB x RBE with Paramedic! The most intriguing track, though, might be Bloody Waters, by Ab-Soul, Anderson .Paak and James Blake, which overlays light Caribbean vibes with a hip hop backbeat and takes a few dizzying turns—rap giving way to Blake’s falsetto vocalizing and liquid drums—in its closing minute. It’s the best reflection on this album of a rare Hollywood tentpole film that’s genuinely interested in cultures other than its own.

This review appeared in Mint Lounge.

Kamal Swaroop: Battling for cinema

For a while last year, Kamal Swaroop had the singular, if unwanted, distinction of having not one but two of his films simultaneously stuck at the censors. One was The Battle Of Banaras (2015), about the contest for the Varanasi seat in the 2014 general election between Narendra Modi, then the Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial candidate, and Aam Aadmi Party national convener Arvind Kejriwal. This documentary was rejected by the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) and then by the film certification appellate tribunal (FCAT); it was only this January that the Delhi high court said the board hadn’t provided adequate reasons for denying certification and ordered the FCAT to reassess the film. The other was Pushkar Puran (2017), which played at the Mumbai Film Festival last year, but was held up and only belatedly passed by the board.

Swaroop is best known for his experimental fiction feature Om Dar-B-Dar (1988), which was also held up at the censors for about a year, and never played commercially until 2014, when PVR Pictures did a limited release. After Rangbhoomi in 2013, he has hit his stride with a string of striking non-fiction films. Last year, apart from the wry, hallucinatory Pushkar Puran, he directed a stately documentary, Atul, about painter Atul Dodiya. We met Swaroop at his apartment in Goregaon, Mumbai, and spoke to him about censors, frog-slaughter and the science of crowds.

Why wasn’t the CBFC ready to pass ‘Pushkar Puran’?
It has been cleared now, with an A certificate and a few cuts. You have to get a no-objection certificate from the animal welfare board. There are all these rules that you can’t make animals perform, you can’t bring them to the shooting—but the film is about an animal fair.

In Om Dar-B-Dar, there is a frog-killing sequence. Khalid Mohamed had interviewed me then, and I told him since it’s a low-budget film, I killed 5,000 frogs, and if it was a higher budget, I would have killed 5,000 elephants. When the article was printed, the headline was, “I killed 5,000 frogs”. Maneka Gandhi read this and wrote a piece saying I was a pathological character. She didn’t understand that for me the frogs were television and the elephant was the big screen. She raised a question in Parliament and they started a practice of having an animal cruelty expert on films.

Did the censors have other problems with ‘Pushkar Puran’?
Nowadays they ask for proof for any statement you make. There’s a lot of mythology in Pushkar; they asked me to submit documents that show which source a scene is taken from. They actually said, what is this film, you’re distorting our history. They don’t understand the difference between mythology and history. Indians don’t have that idea of history—it’s all Puranas. Even history they turn into mythological terminology.

How much of the problem is the Cinematograph Act itself?
It was brought in by the British. At the time, people were finding ways of protesting against the British through film. It’s the same thing now. The government is always suspicious that someone is speaking against them.

The kind of people who sit in the censor—they are appointed by the ruling party, so they become very vigilant and overzealous. It was the same in the Congress’ time. In Om Dar-B-Dar, there was a song that had a phrase that sounded like sat sri akal, so they objected. But it was more because, as they said, we don’t understand this film, so there must be some hidden meaning.

‘The Battle Of Banaras’ and ‘Pushkar Puran’ both eschew conventional narration in favour of incredibly layered sound and image: documentary as a sensory experience…
Yeah, a spectacle. Spectacles and their politics, that’s what fascinates me. My father used to organize melas, and later I assisted on (Richard Attenborough’s) Gandhi, so the idea of crowds appeals to me very much. What are the subgroups, what is their relation to each other? I read this book called Crowds And Power, by Elias Canetti—it inspires me. I try to apply his theories, they become my means of understanding behaviour.

Most camerapersons, you give them a crowd, they won’t know how to frame it. How do I capture that flux? How do I edit it? For me, crowd formation is like science.

Did ‘Pushkar Puran’ involve a lot of pre-planning?
No pre-planning, but I know how it works. There’s a structure to the mela. They’ve handed it over to a corporate—they have set themes, mythologies are replayed. I look at it anthropologically and try to deconstruct the place. I’ve been working on Pushkar for 30-40 years. I’ve done many films on it, but my main interest is in doing a science fiction film there. All these documentaries are research and development for that, but I can’t get funds.

One remarkable thing in the film is how earthy the stories are, even the ones involving gods and goddesses. On the ground level, the imagination about sexuality and fertility and breeding is boundless. There is no censor.

A layperson would find it difficult to believe the same person directed ‘Atul’ and ‘Pushkar Puran’.
That’s what (documentarian R.V.) Ramani said. When he saw Atul, he said, yaar, we thought you were flamboyant, you can make a film like this also? But when I was a young person, I used to make these nice, sensitive portraits of people.
In Atul, the whole feeling is Dodiya’s voice—it creates a beautiful aura. He felt secure with me, so there was no mistrust. I didn’t try to add something on my own. He was his natural self. We shot for 10 days. It was an easy film to make.

The panning across the surface of paintings in ‘Atul’ is intriguing.
Yes, you suddenly see the details in the painting, and it creates a nice rhythm. Dodiya is alone, so I can’t move the camera, but the way it has moved on the paintings, it has created a feeling, and given it a movement. Renu Sawant, who was editing, did that. There are very nice calculated moves, pans and tilts—that is actually what has saved the film. Because of this it has come to life.

What are you working on now?
I’m working on a non-fiction film on Kashmir. It’s about 19 January 1990, the night when the Pandits left Kashmir. I’m taking about 25 Kashmiris in a bus to all the places they lived, revisiting their friends.

If I get a series, I want to do something on five decades of modern Indian art. I know most of the painters—Akbar Padamsee, Gieve Patel, Sudhir Patwardhan, Atul...

There’s no market for documentaries. For Netflix or Amazon, they need to be high-budget documentaries or very dramatic. Banaras would have worked, but they don’t like observational, experiential kind of documentaries like Pushkar. There’s no funding, no distribution, no sales. I don’t know how people continue to make documentaries.

You’re also making them.
And I know it’s a nightmare, to survive.

Black Panther: Review

When Marvel announced that Ryan Coogler would be assuming directorial duties on Black Panther, some commentators (including this one) reacted gloomily. Creed had just jump-started the Rocky franchise, and Marvel had yet to begin the promising run that started with the dour Captain America: Civil War and culminated in the zany pleasures of Thor: Ragnarok. A comic book movie didn’t seem like the best option for an exciting young director. Those fears seems silly now, because Coogler does for comic book films what Creed did for the boxing genre: not reinvent exactly, but reinvigorate.

In his two studio films (before that, he directed the indie Fruitvale Station), Coogler has managed to make the most codified of genres—sports and comics—feel alive and personal. Creed is still an American story, whereas Black Panther, set in the fictional nation of Wakanda, could have come across as just another western director (albeit a black one) picturing exotic Africa. Coogler avoids this by making Black Panther as unapologetically African a film as possible in the heart of mainstream Hollywood. The accents, the music, the costumes and the concerns are all tied to the continent, a drastic (and welcome) change for the comic book genre, usually so America-focused.

We first met T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) in Captain America: Civil War, in which he lost his father, the ruler of Wakanda, to a terrorist attack, and subsequently, as the superhero Black Panther, tracked down the man responsible. In this film, he returns to Wakanda to claim the throne, though only after a picturesque fight-to-the-death at the edge of a waterfall. Just as he’s settling down to rule, though, he’s presented with a mission he can’t refuse: a chance to capture Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), a black marketer who stole some vibranium, the valuable alien metal that Wakanda has in droves, and has successfully kept secret from the rest of the world. Unbeknownst to T’Challa, Klaue has a cohort, Killmonger (Michel B Jordan), an ex-soldier with a connection to his homeland, and a grudge of Shakespearean proportions.

This is just one of many things Shakespearean in Black Panther, which is bursting with dead fathers, duplicitous uncles, fever dreams and courtroom intrigues. By situating the film in Wakanda (with an eye-catching detour to South Korea) and focusing on T’Challa’s family problems, Coogler offers a narrative more emotionally wrought and less self-aware than the standard Marvel product. Since every superhero film now must address some or the other political issue, Black Panther uses T’Challa’s actual governmental role to discuss the responsibility of nation-states. Wakanda, whose reserves of vibranium have allowed it to build dazzling future tech, has maintained a façade of being a third world country. Does this mean they have an obligation to help other nations, perhaps let in refugees? (Opinions are divided.) Even Killmonger’s ostensible plan—to sell vibranium to oppressed people of colour across the world—has a political slant: the violent reversal of centuries of white oppression.

Ever since the trailer dropped, there’s been a lot of talk about the almost-entirely black cast. Now that the film’s released, perhaps the discussion can shift to how well everyone acquits themselves. Boseman, whose James Brown in Get On Up is one of the great overlooked turns of the last decade, brings a watchfulness and an understated intelligence to the role. He gets more out of quizzical look than most actors would out of a double take (Jordan, in wonderful contrast, chews every bit of scenery available). His reticence is wonderfully played off against by Lupita Nyong’o (Nakia, a Wakandan special operative and T’Challa’s ex) and the irrepressible Letitia Wright (Shuri, T’Challa’s 16-year-old sister, whose skills as an inventor might see her take over Tony Stark’s role in the franchise). Daniel Kaluuya, Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett and Martin Freeman round out the cast, with Danai Gurira scene-stealingly fierce as Okoye, head of the king’s all-female bodyguard unit.

Rachel Morrison, who recently became the first woman to receive an Oscar nomination for cinematography (for Mudbound), lends this film a saturated vividness that’s unlike the house style of the Avengers films or the pop art of Thor: Ragnarok. Even more successful in differentiating the film from its MCU predecessors is Ludwig Göransson’s score, which shifts, improbably, from traditional chants and rhythms to hip-hop beats to orchestral movements. It shouldn’t work, but it does. Black Panther doesn’t have the tightness of Creed—it cannot dodge the comic book film cliché of a climactic showdown composed of several mini-battles. Yet, to be free of Cap and Iron Man and the infinity stones for a while, to see faces that are different from the ones we normally see, to hear voices we aren’t used to hearing in Hollywood films, is its own thrill.