Tuesday, September 7, 2021

Bollywood's small-screen year

Cinema halls closed down before the rest of the country did. This speaks to the hold of moviegoing over the Indian public—a hold that was relinquished for perhaps the first time in the medium’s history. There was no way that movie halls—crowded, enclosed—could run. And yet, how would India run without the movies?

The year began auspiciously. The Ajay Devgn-starrer Tanhaji collected ₹367 crore at the box office (it ended up as the year’s biggest earner) in the second week of January. In March, the action film Baaghi 3 collected a respectable ₹137 crore. Then covid-19 struck, and theatres closed. Film-makers and producers took the only call they could: to go online.

After a lean couple of months, the first big film intended for theatrical release premiered on Prime Video in June—Gulabo Sitabo. July saw the release of Dil Bechara (Disney+ Hotstar)—Sushant Singh Rajput’s posthumous release—Shakuntala Devi (Amazon) and Raat Akeli Hai (Netflix). The films kept coming, though, apart from the Akshay Kumar-starrer Laxmii, which premiered on Hotstar in November, big banner spectacles (like Sooryavanshi) opted to wait it out.

The streaming industry benefited from a mass of viewership with nowhere else to turn. Subscription video-on-demand had a 55-60% year-on-year growth in 2020, according to a report by the Boston Consulting Group and the Confederation of Indian Industry. “The responsibility of being able to distract people from this unimaginable crisis was humbling,” Srishti Arya, director, Original Films, Netflix India, says. While the platform wouldn’t share numbers, Arya says that along with an overall increase, foreign language shows and films saw a pronounced uptick in viewership.

Other platforms too benefited from a captive audience, aided by critically lauded shows. Amazon had the Middle Cinema-esque comedy Panchayat and the gritty, intricately structured Paatal Lok. Hotstar scored a hit with Aarya. And SonyLIV caught many by surprise with Scam 1992, an absorbing look at the Harshad Mehta story. It was perhaps the first time the three-four best Hindi streaming shows in a year outstripped the best Hindi films in imagination, daring and storytelling verve.

Directors and actors, conditioned to pre-release promotions, had to adjust to streaming premieres. “This isn’t how we had planned it,” said Alankrita Shrivastava, whose Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamakte Sitare premiered on Netflix in September. “It’s strange to have a film come out and you are not hanging with your cast and crew and friends.”

While streaming had a standout year, theatrical exhibition plummeted. The first six months of shutdown resulted in estimated losses of ₹3,000 crore, Mint reported in September. Some theatres opened in October, at 50% occupancy. The first major film to release was Tenet in early December, which grossed ₹10 crore in two weeks—not big numbers for a film by Christopher Nolan starring Robert Pattinson, but a start nevertheless.

Sanjeev Bijli, joint managing director, PVR, describes the eight-month closure as “an unfortunate pause”. Exhibitors would be eyeing Wonder Woman 1984 (which released in India on 25 December) closely, he said. “We are looking at two-three regional films in January, and hopefully some Hindi films will also get dated. Then we are on our way to achieving business as usual. Everyone’s watching out for the results of Wonder Woman. There’s a certain number of admissions that we all have in mind which will, I think, encourage producers to release their films.”

Assuming people start returning to theatres in large numbers by mid-2021, will it be business as usual? A successful film in theatres can, of course, reach a far wider audience than digital. But there is the uncertainty of box office, while digital allows producers to recover their costs before the film premieres. Will mid-budget indie increasingly opt for a digital release? “I think it will be a question of figuring out what strategy is best for your film,” Shrivastava says. “I just don’t want it to become a situation where theatrical becomes inaccessible for smaller films.”

Warner Bros created a storm last month when it announced that its 2021 titles would release at the same time in US theatres and online, on HBO Max. While HBO Max hasn’t yet launched here, this could encourage a further reduction of the theatrical window (the gap between theatrical and online release) in India. Bijli isn’t worried, though. “The window will hold,” he says. “You have seen the backlash in the US. I believe there are a lot of Indian talents who are putting in their contract that they want a theatrical release.”

The film industry will also be tracking with some wariness the government’s decisions on streaming content. It was announced in November that OTT would ncome under the Union ministry of information and broadcasting. This likely means that streaming content will come in for some sort of censorship (the Central Board of Film Certification is under the I&B ministry)—something it has avoided till now. It seems likely that the aftershocks of 2020 will reverberate through 2021 in Indian cinema.

This piece was published in Mint Lounge on 26 December 2020.

Coolie No. 1: Review

The new Coolie No. 1 is bait, which I will not be taking. There will be no 3,000-word essay about how the Govinda film is a cultural touchstone. Coolie No 1 was a Telugu film first, with Venkatesh and Tabu in the lead. The 1995 Hindi remake by David Dhawan was sweet and dumb, but it didn’t matter. Govinda was at the height of his comic powers then; he only had to open his mouth and audiences would start giggling. Ever wondered how bad those Dhawan films of the ‘90s would be without Govinda in them? Now you know.

If there was an assemble-a-Hindi-movie-star kit, I imagine the result would look a lot like Varun Dhawan. He’s cheeky but non-threatening, has the right kind of jaw and the requisite number of abs, can dance and clown around and fight. He has everything except personality, the one thing that Govinda—whose jawline wouldn’t cut butter—had in spades. It shows in his repeated adoption of accents and personas through this film—now Bachchan, now Mithun. Govinda was so singular a being it didn’t matter who he was playing—the character was Govinda. Dhawan is a blank slate looking for something to mimic.

David Dhawan, Varun's father, resurrects his 1995 film almost scene-for-scene. Raju (Dhawan) is a coolie at a Mumbai railway station. One day, a photograph of Sarah (Sara Ali Khan) sails into his hands, and he’s in love. As luck would have it, the person whose hands the photograph flew out of is a matchmaker, Jai Kishen (Javed Jaffrey), who’s looking to get back at Sarah’s status-obsessed father (Paresh Rawal) for rudely rejecting a boy he proposed. They conspire to pass Raju off as Raj, scion to a business empire. There is ready irony here, for Dhawan is a scion of sorts, who’s play-acting at being poor, whereas Govinda was performing the same scenes as someone who came from very little making fun of the super-rich.

Paresh Rawal is no Kader Khan, but not to the extent that Farhad Samji is no Kader Khan. By now inured to Samji’s rhyming tendencies, I only winced a little when Rawal exclaimed “Heaven on the docks, whiskey on the rocks”. This was followed a while later by “Heaven on the docks, the door (inaudible) has locks”; “Heaven on the docks, I am the lomdi and I am the fox” (fox is lomdi in Hindi); “Heaven on the docks, have you packed your small frocks?”, when he’s pimping his other daughter out to what he thinks is Raj’s identical twin. There are four more instances, once again with 'frocks' and the rest with ‘box’.

In one scene, Dhawan does decent impressions of Shah Rukh Khan, Salman Khan, Ranveer Singh and Amitabh Bachchan, and gets complimented by Jaffrey. I wonder if Dhawan ever watched Timex Timepass or Videocon Flashback as a kid, shows in which a mercurial Jaffrey switched between characters and accents like a pan-Indian Robin Williams. He’s delightful here, adopting a heavy voice, wig and glasses to pass off as Raj’s secretary. That the film drops him for the last hour is both crazy and in keeping with the hundreds of other inexplicable decisions that make up this infantile comedy. Let me end by saying: for Christmas, I did not ask for Varun Dhawan in a pink nurse’s uniform saying, “Very shitty policeman, I like your cap.”

This review was published in Mint Lounge on 25 December 2020.

AK vs AK: Review

Vikramaditya Motwane’s fifth film is a feature-length goof, 108 minutes of mockumentary mixed with deliberately sloppy action and industry satire. Anil Kapoor and Anurag Kashyap play versions of themselves that correspond to their actual filmographies and idiosyncrasies. Kashyap holds a grudge against the actor for not doing 'Allwyn Kalicharan' all those years ago (a film of that name was actually shelved), and rejects Kapoor’s offer to work together. Matters escalate at a public event, with the two exchanging verbal jabs and Kashyap throwing water in Kapoor’s face. When the fallout renders Kashyap a pariah in the industry, his assistant Yogita (Yogita Bihani) suggests a way to get back at Kapoor.

Here’s where things get weird. Kashyap’s plan is to kidnap Sonam Kapoor, Anil’s daughter, and then follow the actor with a camera as he tries to find her. The resulting film will be Kapoor’s first ‘real’ performance, he says. Kapoor obviously doesn’t believe him, but is then shown a video of Sonam held by masked men. And so he sets out on the Mumbai streets at night, Kashyap and cameraperson Yogita shadowing him. Since Kashyap has announced this guerilla-style project as his next film, everyone assumes Kapoor is in character. “This isn’t acting,” he tells the police chief. “It doesn’t feel like acting,” the man compliments him.

For AK vs AK to work, one has to, at some level, buy into this version of Kashyap actually kidnapping a star's daughter. I just couldn’t do that. For one, the Kashyap of the film is awfully close to the Kashyap of real life. Had there been some separation there, or had he been playing a Kashyap-like director, the suspension of disbelief would have been easier. It’s difficult to care about the fate of Sonam Kapoor or to feel sympathy for the increasingly frantic Anil if you’re not convinced she’s in danger.

It is, admittedly, fun to watch Kashyap and Kapoor trade insults. Motwane, working from a screenplay co-written with Avinash Sampath, with dialogue by Kashyap, proceeds at a manic clip. The trio race from police station to Boney Kapoor’s home to housing society musical programme, getting bloodier as night inches towards day and the hour of Sonam’s threatened death approaches. After a point, the plan starts to backfire on Kashyap, which is when the film ought to really kick in. It never did for me—and an 11th hour twist, though amusing, wasn't entirely unpredictable, and was reminiscent of the Japanese zom-com One Cut of the Dead.

As with all films about the inner workings of the film industry, there’s a ton of meta-referencing. Kapoor dances to ‘My Name Is Lakhan’. Kashyap is compared to Martin Scorsese’s pubic hair. Kapoor’s Dil Dhadakne Do is misremembered as “Dil Dhoondta Hai”. Kashyap describes their project as the “first realistic film with a superstar not directed by Shyam Benegal.” Much of the riffing is along the faultline of industry insiders versus outsiders: an in-joke of an in-joke, considering two of Kapoor's kids are actors. My favourite bit is when Harshvardhan Kapoor, Anil’s son and star of Motwane’s last film, is auditioning for Kashyap. As he’s leaving, he turns and says, “Motwane fucked me with Bhavesh.”

Anil Kapoor, to his credit, is along for the ride, and Motwane and Kashyap reserve the sharpest jabs for their own brand of cinema. Yet, it’s hard not to see AK vs AK as an after-hours idea, the kind that might seem revelatory at 3 in the morning after a few drinks. The one-line is irresistible—“Anurag Kashyap kidnaps Anil Kapoor’s daughter”—but it’s still sketch material. Blown up to feature-length, it plays like a grungy, scrappy vanity project.

This review was published in Mint Lounge on 24 December 2020.

Sound of Metal: Review

(This review contains spoilers)

Ruben (Riz Ahmed) is a conservative elder’s idea of a heavy metal drummer: tattooed, white-haired, grouchy. He used to do heroin. He's the sort of person who’d bristle at someone asking, doesn’t all that loud music hurt your ears? He plays in a noisy two-person band with his girlfriend, Lou (Olivia Cooke). They’re on tour, living out of his RV. Then Ruben’s ears start buzzing.

Soon, he can’t hear anything but a faint noise when someone’s talking a foot away. The descent into deafness is swift. There’s no creeping loss, just a warning shot or two, and he can’t hear. It’s a smart decision on the part of director Darius Marder and his brother and co-writer, Abraham Marder (Derek Cianfrance, whose own films have a similar unsparing tenderness, has a story credit). By emphasizing the suddenness of the loss, we’re thrown into Ruben’s panicked state of mind as he first covers up his condition, then latches onto the silver bullet of a cochlear implant.

Marder heightens the sudden change by repeatedly switching between Ruben’s soundscape—a buzz of white noise—and the actual volume of the world (the sound editing team deserves all the praise it can get). The scene where Ruben goes for a checkup is one of the most harrowing I’ve seen this year. A doctor says random words out loud, asking Ruben, hooked up to headphones on the other side of a glass pane, to repeat them. Marder thrusts us into the scene without any preamble, placing us first in the room with Ruben, guessing at words he can barely hear, and then switching to the doctor’s side, with Ruben’s incorrect answers now audible. The doc gives it to him straight: he's only catching 20-30% of the sound around him. Ruben still looks confused, so he tells him, bluntly though not unkindly, “The hearing that you lost is not coming back.”

Lou, fearing that Ruben will start using again, takes him to meet a counselor named Joe (Paul Raci), who runs a program for hearing-impaired addicts. Ruben enrolls reluctantly, yet takes to the life surprisingly well, learning how to sign and helping out with deaf children at a school. We begin to see him as an empathetic young man, clearly devoted to Lou. All the same, it’s clear that in Ruben’s mind, this is a temporary refuge, not his future.

Sound of Metal is built around an exceptionally moving performance by Ahmed. Present in almost every scene of the film, he conveys Ruben’s panic and frustration without making sentimental appeals, those strong-man-in-agony scenes that win you Oscar nominations. In tandem with cinematographer Daniël Bouquet’s searching closeups, his performance seems to burrow into Ruben and present him to us without any artifice. He’s surrounded by members of the deaf community in smaller parts, though the principals—Ahmed, Raci, Cooke (affecting, if you can ignore the white eyebrows) and Mathieu Amalric in a terrific cameo—are hearing actors.

Without ignoring the opportunity this role would have presented for a deaf actor, one might argue that the casting of a hearing actor is somewhat justified here, since they can imagine the helplessness of someone who’s suddenly lost the ability to hear. Raci, too, is a hearing actor, though someone who grew up with deaf parents, and who runs a deaf theatre. The veteran actor's weathered face and gruff manner is a counterpoint to Ahmed’s barely veiled turmoil. There’s a wonderful scene where Joe tells Ruben that his house runs on the belief that being deaf is not a handicap, and that Ruben’s desire for surgery is damaging to morale. “There are too many others to consider,” he whispers and signs.

The open-ended way Sound of Metal leaves us again runs contrary to the sewn-up endings of similar films. In bed with Lou, the Sid Vicious tattoo on his chest a reminder of an artist who surrendered to his demons, Ruben seems to access the stillness Joe challenged him to find. “It’s okay, Lou,” he says, “it’s okay. You saved my life. You made it beautiful. So it’s okay.” He leaves the next morning, alone. The last scene is him sitting on a bench, the ringing church bells a dull metallic clang in his ears. He takes off the hearing device and looks around. His expression gives nothing away. We have no idea how he feels about the first day of the rest of his life.

This review was published in Mint Lounge on 23 December 2020.

Listening to music in a pandemic year

In 2020 we listened to music because what else was there to do? We listened to escape. We listened because we were bored, or to switch off the world. We listened in desperation and in hope, with great concentration and with half a mind on the work we were ignoring.

This experience of listening was inevitably linked to the circumstances everyone found themselves in. Music was chosen to fit surroundings as people quarantined in small or big houses, with people who shared their tastes or didn’t. So much of the music this year would have been heard on headphones. Some of the best albums were recorded during lockdown; even the ones created earlier seemed to resonate with the times. And every so often something would break through the pandemic haze and serve as a reminder of the wide world out there on pause.

While most of us spent the first months of lockdown glaring at articles about how Shakespeare wrote King Lear during a pandemic, there were some who got down to work. On 24 July, Taylor Swift surprised everyone by announcing she’d not only recorded her eighth studio album but it would drop that same day. folklore was produced by The National’s Aaron Dessner, who co-wrote 11 of the 16 tracks, and Swift’s longtime collaborator Jack Antonoff. The partnership between the three, and guests like Bon Iver, was achieved remotely, in a somewhat exalted facsimile of our own Zoom-mandated lives.

Despite being assembled at a remove, folklore was immediate and cohesive. I’d never paid much attention to Swift’s music before, but one evening, walking by the sea past what seemed like the entire young population of Mahim, I heard the album through. It was a richer sound than I expected, Swift singing over hushed guitars, piano, strings, eschewing pop hooks in favour of something more hypnotic. I liked it fine off the bat, but I certainly didn’t count on returning to it week after week. Did this mean I was now a Swiftie? Was I obliged to watch folklore: the long pond studio sessions? (I did)

Unlike folklore, which is spare but polished, Adrianne Lenker’s album really did sound like it was recorded during a pandemic. In March, the lead singer and guitarist of Big Thief repaired to a one-room pine cabin in Massachusetts. The room, she wrote, was “like the inside of an acoustic guitar” and she felt the urge to capture its sound. She asked producer Philip Weinrobe to come up and join her. They recorded for a month and a day, 12 tracks making the cut for an album released in October, simply titled songs.

Lenker was dealing with a painful breakup at the time of recording, and there’s a deep sadness that belies the pretty guitar figures the songs around built around. I cover you with questions/ Cover you with explanations/ Cover you with music, she sings on zombie girl, a confession familiar to anyone who’s tried to paper over a fraying relationship. Heartbreak crystalizes Lenker’s already intimate songwriting into diamond-hard fragments of grief—on forwards beckon rebound, she sings in her strained high voice: Mystery of lack/ Stabbing stars through my back. The isolation and resultant creative burst might have helped Lenker purge herself of some of her sadness. “These songs have helped me heal,” she wrote in a note. “I hope that at least in some small way this music can be a friend to you.”

The artist who fully embraced all the possibilities of a lockdown album was English pop star Charli XCX. On 6 April, she announced on Zoom that she was starting work on a new album. “I’m only really going to be using the tools that I have at my fingertips—the people I can reach online, the tools I have in my house—to create my music, my artwork, my videos,” she said. From the start, it was intended as a truly collaborative record, with Charli not only documenting the making but inviting fans to participate. She posted vlogs tracking her progress, asked for suggestions on song titles and artwork and musical direction. The first video, Forever, released on 17 April, was a masterful four-minute edit of clips sent in by fans going about their lives in lockdown. The album, How I’m Feeling Now, released on 15 May, less than a month and a half after work began. And although its hard electronic dancefloor sound didn’t scream ‘lockdown album’, the lyrics were perfect pandemic ennui: I'm so bored/ Wake up late, eat some cereal/ Try my best to be physical/ Lose myself in a TV show/ Staring out to oblivion/ All my friends are invisible.

In a year where our rooms became the world, music allowed us to imagine other people in other rooms. Lenker’s instrumentals, a companion record to songs, consists of two extended guitar pieces, in which you can hear the squeak of every chord change, the sounds of scraping and shuffling, bird calls, the wind, the crackle of a fire. The exquisite mostly chimes has Lenker picking softly over mandala-like wind chimes. The last minute is just a delicate crackling, like someone walking over pine needles. music for indigo is a spare acoustic collage, 18 minutes into which Lenker sighs and says “I’m starting over”.

I found myself looking out for similar cracks in the surface, even in the albums recorded pre-pandemic. You can hear Fiona Apple’s dogs on the title track of Fetch The Bolt Cutters (they’re credited with ‘backing barks’). “Sounds pretty sick”, someone remarks at the end of Dandelions, from Kurt Vile’s Speed, Sound, Lonely KV EP. The beautiful bass-drum intro to Young Man’s Game on Fleet Foxes’ Shore—another album recorded mostly during lockdown—earns a “perfect”, possibly from creator Robin Pecknold. In another year, I might not have paid attention to these wrinkles, but in 2020 they were a comfort: signs of life, even as our lives stood suspended.

It was a great year for music that asked you to lean in and listen. A move from laptop speakers to headphones, and from Mumbai to a freezing Delhi, allowed Lenker’s albums to grab hold of me. Phoebe Bridgers’ Punisher also took a couple of listens before I could appreciate the elegant string arrangements and wistful double-tracked vocals. The last track is a slowly mutating number that closes with a chorus triumphantly repeating ‘the end is here’. This song, and the album, were recorded before the pandemic, but two lines from it describe perfectly the anxious lazy surrender of lockdown: When I get back I'll lay around/ And I'll get up and lay back down.

I spent most of the year indoors in a one-and-a-half-room Mumbai apartment. Instinctually, I found myself playing a lot of music that reverberated nicely in that limited space without straining my ears or my neighbours’. Women in Music Pt. III, by the Los Angeles sibling trio Haim, arrived at just the right time: sunny, earworm-y pop-rock with shades of Fleetwood Mac but also Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell and Walk On the Wild Side Lou Reed. On Alfredo, The Alchemist served up cloudy R&B and jazz and psychedelic guitars for Freddie Gibbs to rap over. These albums—and Soccer Mommy’s Color Theory, and the ones by Fleet Foxes and Bridgers—were the third bowl of porridge: not too loud, not too soft, just right. But there was only one artist whose sound seemed to fill the room and then stretch into infinity: Julianna Barwick, who builds multilayered vocal overdubs into ecstatic loops of sound on Healing is a Miracle.

Not everything brilliant was easy listening. Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters was probably the best album of the year, acidly funny writing married to a roiling, pulsing, organic sound. Yet each hearing demanded something, which meant it wasn’t the easiest record to play on repeat. The same was true for Mama, You Can Bet! by singer-songwriter Jyoti, a thick mixture of jazz, spacey funk and eclectic vocal stylings. It was stunning, but the sort of stunning that takes time to recover from. Then there was the music too wild and specific to retrofit into the pandemic experience, in particular Run the Jewels’ RTJ4 and Riz Ahmed’s The Long Goodbye, searing hip-hop from Trump’s America and Brexit Britain (the anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act protests were still on when the latter released, so Riz saying 'Now everybody everywhere wantin' their country back' hit especially hard).

When music couldn’t speak to the pandemic experience, the visuals did. Videos started to resemble National Geographic. Fleet Foxes debuted Shore on YouTube along with an hour-long film with tasteful shots of streams, fields, animals, birds, mountains. Lenker filmed the woods around her cabin for a series of scratchy videos. The album cover of folklore has Swift in a forest, dwarfed by tall trees. For the video for In Light, Julianna Barwick assembled a “small quarantine crew” —a director, a DP, and a ballet dancer—“who set out to the dunes, the forest, the ocean, and the hazy universe that is the salton sea.”

Two videos I saw within weeks of each other struck me as a perfect double bill on the sudden outlawing of touch. Perfume Genius’ Describe has a group of scraggly men and women living on some sort of post-apocalypse farm. The weird antagonistic dancing and saturated, sensual look seemed to echo a world driven half-crazy by restrictions on physical contact. Repression was replaced by orgiastic excess in Harry Styles’ Watermelon Sugar, which begins with the warning “This video is dedicated to touching. May 18, 2020”, and then makes good on it. (Styles made his video as a comment on the lockdown; Mike Hadreas, whose performs as Perfume Genius, shot his before.) There was also the cheerful sight of the Haim sisters—patron saints of brisk walking—striding across the screen in Don’t Wanna. Touch was still limited, but movement was back.

The music keeps coming. Right now, I’m listening to Fuubutsushi (風物詩), a pristine amalgam of classical and jazz by four musicians collaborating at a distance; We Will Always Love You, the third album by shimmery electronica patchwork geniuses The Avalanches, and Swift’s second surprise album of 2020, evermore, another hushed set of folk and country tunes. The year’s almost over. We’re still in our rooms. The beat goes on.

This piece was published in Mint Lounge on 20 December 2020.

Moments in Hindi cinema: 2020

It was, everyone will agree, the worst of times. Three months into 2020, the pandemic shut down cinemas, which have now reopened but are struggling to bring back the crowds. With no other option, Hindi cinema picked up the pieces and set up shop on streaming platforms. And though it was a year of loss for the industry, at least we had the movies. From the dozens of Hindi films (some of which made the festival rounds before 2020) that saw a digital or theatrical release this year, here are 10 special moments.

‘Angrezi Medium’: Irrfan closes his eyes

When Irrfan Khan returned from his treatment for cancer abroad and shot for a film for the first time in more than a year, fans allowed themselves a little hope. But those close to the actor knew the truth. Perhaps this is why his friend, director Homi Adajania, ended Angrezi Medium—the last film many of us saw in theatres before the lockdown—with a shot of Khan, his head slightly out of a car window, a beatific smile on his face, closing his eyes. It felt like goodbye. A month and a half later, the best actor of his generation was no more.

‘Sir’: ‘Ashwin’

She calls him by his name. It may not seem like much, but this moment is the culmination of 100 minutes of carefully wrought romantic tension. Over the course of Rohena Gera’s film, we see Ratna (Tillotama Shome), a domestic worker, and Ashwin (Vivek Gomber), her employer, develop a halting attraction to each other. Finally, in the last shot, she ceases calling him “Sir”, a heart-stopping moment—and an indictment of a culture in which a domestic worker using an employer’s name can be the whole point of a film.

A hug in ‘Thappad

Amrita (Taapsee Pannu) is slapped by her husband during a party at their house. She passes the next day in a sort of daze. When she goes to meet her friend Shivani (Dia Mirza), who witnessed the incident, they talk about marriage and loyalty but Amrita can’t bring herself to mention the slap and Shivani doesn’t broach the subject. Instead, she tells Amrita she wants to give her a hug, which her friend gratefully accepts. This sisterly solidarity is the first bit of support Amrita gets, a small kindness that sets her on the road to a painful but necessary decision.

Fatherly advice in ‘Gunjan Saxena’

Sitting late at night with her father at the dining table, aspiring air force cadet Gunjan (Janhvi Kapoor) brings up something that has been troubling her. “The air force would expect all their pilots to be patriotic. But I just want to fly planes,” she says, wondering aloud if she’s committing “gaddaari”. Her father (Pankaj Tripathi), a former army man himself, tells her if she loyal to her job, the question of betraying her country does not arise. It's welcome deflating of nation-love, all the more surprising for turning up in a film about the armed forces.

The second call in 'Cargo'

In Arati Kadav’s lo-fi sci-fi, a lone demon aboard a spaceship, Prahastha (Vikrant Massey), helps the recently deceased to the afterlife. One day, over his objections, a video call is placed to an old lover of his on earth. In a lovely bit of meta-casting, Mandakini is played by Konkona Sensharma, Massey’s director in A Death In The Gunj. Prahastha and her have a superficial conversation, avoiding the subject of why he left and cut off all contact with her years ago. They hang up. Then Prahastha calls back, and this time they talk for real. Mandakini tells him she feels like she’s talking to a ghost. Prahastha agrees, saying, “I feel like the people who come here are alive and I am the ghost.”

The time lapse in ‘Bhonsle’

We see a man pass a dreary day in a flat in a Mumbai chawl. His name is Bhonsle; he seems to be in his 60s, and has just retired from the police force. He makes tea, drinks it with a plain pav—probably breakfast. He scrubs the floor, washes his clothes and hangs them out to dry, makes lunch and eats it. All the while, music plays on a malfunctioning radio. The same actions are repeated later in the day—or is it another day? The mundanity, the loneliness, and the surrender in Manoj Bajpayee’s silent performance are underscored when, between cuts, the character ages dramatically. A white-haired, wizened man now performs the same actions. Director Devashish Makhija returns to the comparatively younger Bajpayee, but these few shots make clear that we have just witnessed the rest of this man’s life.

'Raat Akeli Hai': 'Rang Saaf Nahi Hai'

In Honey Trehan’s detective noir, Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s Inspector Yadav is first seen in a photograph his mother (Ila Arun) shows a prospective rishta at a wedding. “Rang saaf nahi hai (he’s dark-skinned),” the girl says. “Par mann saaf hai (but he’s good-hearted),” his mother replies. The deftness of the answer can’t erase the sting of the immediate rejection. Later, when Yadav’s mother admiringly compares him to Ajay Devgn, we realise that Devgn and Siddiqui are perhaps the only male stars working in Hindi cinema today about whom the girl would have been able to make the comment.

‘Bebaak’: The deleted text

On her way to ask for a loan from a religious trust so she can continue her studies, Fatin (Sarah Hashmi) texts a classmate. He asks her where she’s headed. She starts to write “Bhendi Bazaar”, a Muslim neighbourhood in Mumbai. She then deletes this and types “Town”—upscale, secular. This little detail tells us everything about Fatin’s uneasiness with being associated overtly with her own community, a theme that runs through Shazia Iqbal’s short film.

A sound memory in ‘Shikara’

Shiv (Aadil Khan) runs through the streets of Srinagar looking for Naveen (Priyanshu Chatterjee). They are Kashmiri Pandits, thrust into the tumultuous events that led to the exodus of the community from the valley. He finally sights him standing in a small group. Then there’s a gunshot, and Naveen falls slowly to the ground, dead. Director Vidhu Vinod Chopra adds the sound (though not the visual) of birds flying after the gun’s report. It’s a callback to his most famous film, in which Anupam Kher (coincidentally, a Kashmiri Pandit) is shot by gangsters, the flight of pigeons around him lending the film its title—Parinda, or bird.

'Class of '83': Strike

Five cops, batchmates at the academy a few years earlier, get together over a seafood dinner at a no-frills restaurant. One of them says something disparaging about striking mill workers (Atul Sabharwal’s film is set in 1980s Mumbai). This rubs another the wrong way; his father is a mill worker. Their argument threatens to boil over but one of the group plays peacemaker and the offended party ends up admitting his helplessness over his father’s condition. It’s a terrific scene, clipped and efficient, smartly performed by all five actors, the dialogue slipping from Hindi to Marathi and back. Though primarily a genre film, Class Of ’83 finds ways to dovetail with the history of the city, and few events were more seismic that decade than the closing of the mills. The film literally inserts bits of history as well, splicing shots from old Films Division newsreels into the action.

This piece was published in Mint Lounge on 18 December 2020. 

Mank: Review

Among other things, Mank might be one of the nicer things a son has done for a father in the movies. David Fincher’s father, Jack, wrote the screenplay. They tried to get it made, unsuccessfully, and Jack died in 2003. Then, in 2019, Fincher announced it as his next film. It’s out now on Netflix—the story of Herman Mankiewicz drying out on a ranch in the Mojave desert and writing Citizen Kane. It's also the story of a man to whom writing clever comes easy wondering if he’s ever written something good.

Like Kane, Mank starts with a broken man in bed and proceeds to delve into his past. Mankiewicz was an alcoholic and a gambler, and it was Welles, then a wunderkind of radio and theatre, who sent him to the ranch with a secretary and a nurse and no alcohol, to recover from a broken leg and write. Liquor eventually made its way there, but the plan worked, with Mankiewicz turning in over 300 pages in the allotted 60 days. Interspersed with his pained progress are flashbacks—the text on screen resembling instructions in a shooting screenplay—to earlier in the decade, with Mankiewicz part of the brilliant, unruly posse of newspapermen-turned-screenwriters who defined the Hollywood of the 1930s.

The irony, of course, is that Mank at his most miserable produced the one work everyone remembers him by (Welles would have been successful whether or not he’d made Kane). That it doesn’t dawn on Mankiewicz until late that he’s working on something substantial, that he finally realizes it and asks for the screenwriting credit he was forgoing, lends the film a poignance that’s accentuated when one thinks of Fincher’s father writing this in his sixties. “What year is it?” a plastered Mank asks his wife, Sara (Tuppence Middleton). “I should have done something by now.” Show me a writer who hasn’t said that in their twenties, thirties, forties…

The rumour ever since Fincher announced the film was that it's based on the book-length Pauline Kael piece “Raising Kane”, in which the New Yorker critic argued (among other things) that Mank had a larger hand in the writing of the film than Welles. Though the piece has some wonderful writing on '30s comedies and about Welles himself, it was seen as an attack on the director and many of Kael’s theories were rebutted (some by Welles, via acolyte Peter Bogdanovich). The film certainly seems to draw on the piece for its anecdotes—Herman saying “The white wine came up with the fish” after he throws up, for instance—but ends before the Kane script goes into revision. In other words, aside from a line at the end, it's not interested in who wrote how much of Citizen Kane.

While the focus is on Mankiewicz, the film also shines a light on another forgotten real-life figure wrapped up in the Kane mythos. Marion Davies was an actress, the mistress of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, and a friend of Mank’s. Since everyone recognized Hearst as the inspiration for Charles Foster Kane, it was assumed that Susan, the chorus girl whom Kane falls for in the film, was Davies. “One can sometimes hurt one’s enemies, but that’s nothing compared to what one can do to one’s friends,” Kael wrote, adding that, through the vapid figure of Susan, “Marion Davies was nailed to the cross of harmless stupidity and nothingness”. But Amanda Seyfried plays Davies as the charming, funny hostess she was, a vivid performance that challenges us to see her as something other than a victim or a punchline. “Marion Antoinette… marionette,” Mankiewicz mutters – but she isn’t.

For those familiar with Welles’ movie—most of humanity, one would like to believe—there is enough spot-the-reference material to keep that 10-second rewind button in frequent play. Deep focus compositions abound, a technique made famous by Welles and cinematographer Gregg Toland, in which the background and foreground are both clear. In several scenes, beams of light cut the room into ribbons, another visual motif from Kane. During Mank’s trips to San Simeon, Hearst’s pleasure palace, you can see things—exotic animals, cavernous rooms—that eventually made their way into Mank’s script. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s score plays wittily on Bernard Hermann’s classic one, though the uptempo jazz is the studio scenes is a bit too chipper.

With its rat-a-tat dialogue and screwball performances, Mank is Fincher’s most eager-to-please work, but also the least likely to succeed. It’s in black and white, and not the lustrous black and white of Roma or Cold War. The acting is deliberately 1930s. The one well-known personality, Orson Welles, is a peripheral figure. There’s no stunt casting: Oldman (wonderfully weary as Mankiewicz), Seyfried, and Charles Dance as Hearst will be familiar to most, but only those who saw The Souvenir will recognize Tom Burke (playing Welles), and it’s unlikely anyone will know Arliss Howard (Louis B. Mayer), Ferdinand Kingsley (excellent as Irving Thalberg), Tom Pelphrey (Joseph Mankiewicz) or Sam Troughton (John Houseman).

This is a film wholly absorbed in the Hollywood of the 1930s. It makes no concessions if you don’t know about Mayer or Thalberg or Hearst. You need to understand why Herman cracks up when his brother Joseph tells him things are so bad “F Scott Fitzgerald is referring to you as a ruined man.” When, in an early scene, Charles Lederer meets, for the first time, Ben Hecht, S.J. Perelman, George S. Kaufman and Charles Macarthur, it’s a funny but commonplace scene unless you know that you’re seeing the authors of Scarface, A Night At The Opera, Notorious, His Girl Friday, Twentieth Century and Kane together in one room. A major plot strand concerns writer Upton Sinclair’s run for governor of California in 1934, and Mank’s uncharacteristic investment in it. Resonances with the present day notwithstanding—the American public’s perennial mistrust of socialism, fake news circulated by Sinclair’s rival—the connection to Mankiewicz, never the politically active sort, might stem from something more basic. As someone tells him at San Simeon: “You always side with the writer.”

Mank sides with the writer too. There’s a point in the film when Mankiewicz is done with the script, but doesn’t care what happens to it or whether he gets credit. “I built him a watertight narrative and a suggested destination,” he says. “Where he takes it, that’s his job.” How he goes from there to asking for the writing credit that’ll ensure his place in history is a touching progression that’s all the more surprising coming from a director’s director like Fincher. To adapt a line from Citizen Kane, Mank promises the war and then supplies the prose poems.

This piece was published in Mint Lounge on 5 December 2020.