Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Class of ’83: Review

It would seem that a few months of online premieres have done what a century of theatrical releases couldn’t: tame the running times of Hindi films. Raat Akeli Hai may have stretched its legs but Shakuntala Devi and Gulabo Sitabo were just over two hours, Gunjan Saxena and Dil Bechara were 112 and 101 minutes, while Bulbbul was a scarcely believable 94 minutes. At an hour and 38 minutes, Class of ’83 is another time-efficient title. Yet, this is one film that actually needs that extra hour.

Atul Sabharwal’s film begins at a police training academy in Nashik in 1982, where five cadets are having a tough time reining in their rebelliousness and keeping up with lessons. Shukla (Bhupendra Jadawat), Aslam (Sameer Paranjape), Jadhav (Ninad Mahajani), Surve (Prithvik Pratap) and Varde (Hitesh Bhojraj) seem to be on their way out when the academy's elusive dean, Vijay Singh (Bobby Deol), takes an interest in them. Instead of cutting the quintet loose, the grizzled cop tweaks the syllabus to engage their attention. Training montages with Moroder-like synths follow (welcome back, Viju Shah). Eventually, Singh reveals his endgame—he wants to form a secret squad of hitmen who’ll take down Bombay’s gangsters.

Singh has his own demons. In 1981, while leading a raid on gangster Kalsekar, he was ambushed and ended up losing several of his men. To make matters worse, he returned to find that his ailing wife—whom he’d left in the hospital—was dead. We learn that the academy is a punishment posting, and that he tried to commit suicide. The hit squad is a way to redeem himself. And for a while it works, as his protégés start killing criminals in fake 'encounters'.

Class of ’83 adapts S. Hussain Zaidi’s nonfiction book on the actual cops who became 'encounter specialists' in the ’80s. Singh spells it out to a friend: “The institutionalised killing of gangsters by policemen." The film treats such killings as a moral imperative—a cure to a disease. There’s a political parallel drawn too: the ‘Punjab model’. But encounters are illegal for a reason, still prevalent and often misused. The cops in this film are only seen as having crossed a line when they accidentally gun down civilians and start taking money from gangsters. The shooting of unarmed criminals isn’t even framed as a necessary evil—it’s just necessary. It’s difficult not to see an aligning of hardline attitudes in Aslam’s use of the line from Uri: The Surgical Strike, “ghar mein ghus ke maarenge (we’ll enter your houses and kill you)".

This is where the film’s runtime works against it. Even if there’s a willingness to examine the effects of committing officially sanctioned murder on these cops, there isn’t enough time (surely Aslam, the most conscientious of the five, has some qualms?). Class of ’83 feels like it has material enough for three hours, crunched into half that time. All the characters besides Singh are light sketches: I couldn’t tell you anything about the individual members of the squad beyond Shukla being a compulsive masturbator. Wives and children appear out of nowhere and are never seen again. Singh’s relationship with his son appears to be damaged beyond repair but when he turns up an hour later they seem reconciled.

When the film does dwell on a scene, it gives Sabharwal and screenwriter Abhijeet Deshpande a chance to tell us something about who these people are. In a scene with the five of them at a restaurant, the conversation turns to striking mill workers. Shukla has been injured in one of the rallies, and Varde mutters that stone-pelters will die if they carry on like this. Jadhav says his father is a mill worker, which leads to an argument. It's the film’s best scene, not only for how it shows the unstable dynamic of the group but also the way it addresses the larger social forces altering Bombay at the time.

In creating the Bombay of the 1980s, Sabharwal does something clever. He splices in clips from old Films Division documentaries, using them like quick ‘joins’ in the narrative. This isn’t done often, or for long, so the shots just about blend in with the film's brown-and-grey palette (credit to editors Manas Mittal and Nitin Baid). There’s the boy being splashed by a wave from Charles Correa’s City on the Water, a top-angle view of Flora Fountain from G.L. Bhardwaj’s Destination Bombay, a crowded train station from Mani Kaul’s Arrival. It’s a simple and effective strategy, a way to ground the film in reality while not departing from the world of fiction. The era is established in other ways as well: billboards, popular songs (Surve sings a line of John Jani Janardhan), movie posters, Viju Shah’s exuberant retro synths and the wonderful detail of how postmen helped cops track gangs.

If Shah is back, it’s only fitting that Bobby Deol is too. The actor isn’t making a comeback exactly, just a comeback to films that aren’t, you know, Yamla Pagla Deewana: Phir Se. His Vijay Singh is not a commanding performance but an adequate one, testament to what can happen when an actor with years on his face gets a sympathetic director who’ll cover his limitations. The actors playing the young cops are a fine, ornery ensemble—though again, a little more time with each would have been welcome.

Class of ’83 has shades of Ashim Ahluwalia’s Daddy, another dry cops-and-gangsters film that takes its Mumbai period recreation seriously. But where Daddy was coolly detached, Class of ’83 ends on a note of moral certitude. “Sometimes, to maintain order, one has to break the law," the narrator says as the cops do a hero walk—shot from below, unsmiling, purposeful—towards the camera. It’s a walk you’ll probably see in Sooryavanshi when it eventually releases, and while that film will scarcely resemble Class of '83, their ideas regarding vigilante cops may not be that far apart.


Perry Mason season 1: Review

Some shows hit the ground running. I don’t know a Sopranos fan who wasn’t hooked by the end of the pilot. Mad Men’s first episode had the famous “It’s toasted" pitch to Lucky Strike. Justified starts with the hero outdrawing a gangster and ends with him shooting the man who’ll be his main rival for six seasons.

Then there are the ones that take their time. A common discussion among fans of The Wire is when the show started to “kick in" for them. Halt and Catch Fire fans avoid that discussion—it’s too embarrassing (the last episode of the first season is when I first had an inkling of greatness). The Americans had a killer first episode, but soon settled into its trademark slow burn, with intricate story arcs unfolding across entire seasons.

The HBO series Perry Mason—created by Rolin Jones and Ron Fitzgerald—which just wrapped up its first season, certainly has a delayed kick. There are eight episodes, and four of these are an origin story. Perhaps this was necessary to distinguish this Perry Mason from the memory of Erle Stanley Gardner’s novels and the long-running TV show with Raymond Burr as the criminal defense lawyer. So we get a decidedly unimpressive Mason to start with—a private investigator working for a veteran Los Angeles lawyer, E.B. (John Lithgow). He’s more crumpled tissue than human being, haunted by his time in the war, broke, divorced and forced to take photographs of stars for the yellow papers to make ends meet.

Matthew Rhys, who plays Mason, is a marvellous subtle actor, but the first few episodes seem to encourage our impression of him as the saddest face on television, as the increasingly conflicted spy in The Americans, and in films like The Post and A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. It’s hard to see the hotshot lawyer of the books in this sad sack digging around morosely for evidence to help E.B. defend a woman accused of abducting her baby, who turns up dead in a harrowing scene at the start. Yet, as the case stretches on and the involvement of the Radiant Assembly of God, a cult-like church, becomes more evident, Mason’s spine—somewhat bent out of shape at the start—starts to straighten.

It sounds strange to hear but the show’s obvious pedigree also hampers its early episodes. The careful detailing of the seedy 1930s setting pretty much shouts prestige series. The directors are HBO MVP Tim Van Patten and Deniz Gamze Ergüven, who made the acclaimed Mustang. The music is by Terence Blanchard (his second great score of the year after Da 5 Bloods). There are war flashbacks whose main purpose is to flash the show’s $74 million budget. It feels a bit too artfully arranged, too dark-night-of-the-soul, and not enough fun.

Fortunately—and taking away nothing from Lithgow’s fusty performance—E.B. dies and the show comes alive. The fifth episode starts with his secretary Della Street (Juliet Rylance) discovering the body; it ends with her convincing Mason to take the bar exam, become a lawyer and take on the case. The transformation from PI to lawyer, even a fumbling one, is perhaps a bit too quick, but Rhys sells it as few actors could, retaining the hangdog look but conveying a growing sense of purpose and moral clarity. Rylance is wonderful too, her character swiftly and calmly taking charge, carrying Mason until he’s ready to walk. And there are wonderful supporting turns: Gayle Rankin as the stricken mother, Shea Whigham as Mason's dirt-digging friend, Chris Chalk as an honest beat cop and Tatiana Maslany and Lili Taylor as the mother and daughter who run the Radiant Assembly.

A scene near the start of the last episode is indicative of the confidence the show has going into its final stretch. Mason is laying into a crooked cop on the stand, in complete control, full of righteous fury. As he goes in for the kill, a lawyer who’s been helping him stands up and says, “It won’t work, Mason. He's not going to confess." It’s a weirdly stagey moment, but Mason continues. Again the man says, “It won’t work." Mason yells at him, “I’m not finished." And suddenly there's a cut to the night before, with Mason and team practising, and we realise that what we’ve been seeing is a vision of how they hope it will go. To place the Perry Mason of legend in a lying flashback is incredibly clever. And with a second season announced, it’s a promise that we’ll see the finished article sometime in the future.

28 films for 28 states

One thing about Indian cinema that isn’t appreciated enough, even by film fans in this country, is its vastness. The widely spoken languages have their own film industries, but the drive to tell stories through cinema extends to the most far-flung communities and obscure dialects. On Independence Day, we pay tribute to this diversity by selecting one film set in each state of India. To give a relatively recent picture of each state, we’ve limited ourselves to films from the last 20 years and largely avoided period dramas. From 'Anaarkali Of Aarah' to 'Iewduh', here's a snapshot of Indian cinema, state by state.


Arunachal Pradesh: Crossing Bridges (2013)

A web designer working in Mumbai returns to his village in Arunachal Pradesh, and spends his time there in the hope of finding another job and leaving again. Sange Dorjee Thongdok’s film was the first to be made in the local Shertukpen dialect.


Andhra Pradesh: C/o Kancharapalem (2018)

Kancharapalem, a locality in Visakhapatnam, is the inspiration and setting for Maha Venkatesh’s Telugu feature. An anthology film, C/o Kancharapalem draws its stories and most of its actors from the neighbourhood.


Assam: Bulbul Can Sing (2018)

In the last decade, Assam has been represented in films as disparate as Aamis, Bornodi Bhotiai and Local Kung Fu. One particularly successful modern chronicler of the state is Rima Das, whose Village Rockstars and Bulbul Can Sing have been feted at home and abroad. The latter, a delicate coming-of-age film in Assamese, is a vivid but unsparing portrait of village life.


Bihar: Anaarkali Of Aarah (2017)

Avinash Das’ film is an energetic portrait, as well as an indictment, of modern-day Bihar. The story of a risqué stage singer whose life is turned upside-down after fending off the drunken advances of a powerful university vice chancellor, Anaarkali Of Aarah uses the same local tradition of erotic singing that gets its central character into trouble to also mark her ultimate victory.


Chhattisgarh: Newton (2017)

A rule-obsessed government clerk sent on election duty to the Naxal-controlled jungles of Chhattisgarh finds his main opposition in the form of a CRPF officer. Amit Masurkar’s Hindi film is a layered and ultimately moving portrait of a part of the state that’s rarely seen peace.


Goa: Nachom-ia Kumpasar (2015)

Goa has been the setting for so many films from outside the state that it seems only fair to highlight one that tells Goa’s story. This Konkani film by Bardroy Barretto is a short history of Goan popular music, told through the relationship of a jazz singer and a trumpeter-bandleader.


Gujarat: Amdavad Ma Famous (2015)

“It’s a terrible addiction," a disapproving cleric says. “These boys are like artists," says another. Between these two extremes is suspended Hardik Mehta’s delightful non-fiction short, which looks at kite-flyers (and the daredevils who run after severed kites) in Ahmedabad.




Haryana: Sultan (2016)

Ali Abbas Zafar’s film, starring Salman Khan and Anushka Sharma, is the one unabashedly mainstream title on this list. An ode to the akhara wrestling tradition, the film addresses issues of patriarchy and gender roles while nudging its characters and audience to be more broad-minded.


Himachal Pradesh: Dear Maya (2017)

Plenty of Indian films have shot in Shimla, but not many are set there. Sunaina Bhatnagar's Dear Maya unfolds in the hill station, which allows us to see like any other sleepy town and not a tourist destination. Manisha Koirala plays a mysterious middle-aged woman whose solitary existence prompts two teenagers to hatch a risky scheme.


Jharkhand: Udaan (2010)

The steel town of Jamshedpur is the backdrop for Vikramaditya Motwane’s debut film, in which a young boy tries to find the resolve to stand up to his domineering father. The regimented, unsparing nature of factory life and the drabness of the setting seem to mirror the boy’s thwarted life.


Karnataka: Thithi (2015)

In Raam Reddy’s Thithi, we get the specific flavour of Nodekoppalu, co-writer Eregowda's native village. A lot of this is conveyed through food—its procuring, cooking and serving at the ritual feast by the sons of the village elder who dies at the start of the film.


Kerala: Maheshinte Prathikaaram (2016)

In recent Malayalam cinema, setting is everything. The best films conjure up such a specific vision of these towns and villages that they end up in the titles: Angamaly Diaries, Kumbalangi Nights. One underrated gem is Dileesh Pothan’s Maheshinte Prathikaaram, which suggests beautifully the small-town rhythms of Prakash city, in Idukki district. The opening minute and a half of Idukki, sung by actor Fahadh Faasil, could be an advertisement for Kerala tourism.


Madhya Pradesh: Stree (2018)

By coincidence, two Hindi films shot in the town of Chanderi released in 2018. One was Sui Dhaaga, which took as its central theme the town’s famous saree-makers. The other was a supernatural comedy, Amar Kaushik’s Stree, with Rajkummar Rao as an expert tailor. This blithe sleeper hit takes in Chanderi’s customs (it’s set during the annual four-day puja) and plays cleverly on the centrality of local legends, no matter how far-fetched, in small-town life.


Maharashtra: Killa (2014)

It’s impossible to pick one title from Maharashtra, with so many classic Mumbai-set films and excellent Marathi films set elsewhere in the state. But Avinash Arun’s gentle coming-of-age Marathi film, Killa, stands out for the way it captures the pristine beauty of the Konkan coast.


Manipur: Loktak Lairembee (2016)

This Meitei fiction film is about a couple who live on Loktak lake in Manipur, and what happens when the man finds a gun and starts seeing apparitions. Director Haobam Paban Kumar had earlier made a documentary on the same lake, and his first feature hews close to reality, basing itself on the 2011 eviction of lake-dwellers by the government.


Meghalaya: Iewduh (2019)

Iewduh is Meghalaya’s biggest market, in its capital, Shillong. Pradip Kurbah’s film, a rare title in Khasi, is a wonderful introduction to the place, weaving in local customs, music, food and the Shillong Teer lottery.


Mizoram: When Thunders Roll (2015)

Not many films have been made or set in Mizoram. There’s the documentary Rambuai: Mizoram’s ‘Trouble’ Years, and the Hindi film Dansh, set against the backdrop of the Mizo Nationalist Front’s struggle, but there’s barely a trace of either online. So we’ll go with Napoleon RZ Thanga’s modest non-fiction short When Thunders Roll, which documents the 2015 Independence Day charity ride by the Royal Enfield riders’ club The Aizawl Thunders.


Nagaland: Up Down & Sideways (2017)

Two directors from Chennai, Anushka Meenakshi and Iswar Srikumar, made this film about work songs in Phek village in Nagaland. This unique musical documentary, in Chokri and Nagamese, shows how the polyphonic singing is done in time with the rhythms of rice cultivation, creating a literal sense of harmony.


Odisha: Chilika Bank$: Stories from India's Largest Coastal Lake from 1970-2007 (2008)

Akanksha Joshi’s documentary, produced by the Public Service Broadcasting Trust, looks at the various people who live by, and make their living off, Chilika, India’s largest coastal lake. Through her narration and lively interviews with locals, Joshi shows how the desire to service the export market has deprived fishermen of a steady living.


Punjab: Luv Shuv Tey Chicken Khurana (2012)

There have been wonderful films in Punjabi in recent years, but Luv Shuv is significant in offering up just enough Punjabi dialogue along with Hindi to seem like it actually belongs to the state (that proportion has increased further, as seen in films like Udta Punjab and Kesari). Sameer Sharma’s colourful film offers a snapshot of present-day rural Punjab, with Amit Trivedi’s music nicely poised between tradition and hipness.


Rajasthan: Manorama Six Feet Under (2009)

Rajasthan is a ridiculously picturesque state, whether in arty films like Rudaali or epics like Padmaavat. All credit to director Navdeep Singh, then, for wiping all traces of exotica and making the small-town setting of Lakhot nondescript and menacing in his expert reworking of Chinatown.


Sikkim: Ralang Road (2017)

Karma Takapa’s debut feature is a difficult-to-categorise mix of psychological drama, dry comedy and neo-noir. It’s also a rare look at daily life in misty Rabong and Borong (where the director is from) in southern Sikkim.


Tamil Nadu: Kaaka Muttai (2015)

Two young brothers living in a Chennai slum watch a pizza commercial and are filled with the desire to try one. Director M. Manikandan casts an unsentimental eye on their quest, imbuing everything from a trip to the mall to stealing crow’s eggs with humour and poignancy.


Telangana: Bobby Jasoos (2014)

Samar Shaikh’s film was initially supposed to take place in Mumbai before the change to Hyderabad was suggested by producer Dia Mirza. This easygoing comedy starring Vidya Balan gains a lot from its setting, weaving the cultural markers and accents of old Hyderabad into each scene.


Tripura: Tree of Tongues in Tripura (2016)

Joshy Joseph's self-reflexive feature, in Kokborok and English, was developed at a film-making workshop in Agartala. Tripura’s tribal culture and music is at its heart, in particular the efforts of folk artist and preservationist Thanga Darlong, who turned 100 this year.


Uttar Pradesh: Mukkabaaz (2018)

The state has become a popular setting for the New Middle Cinema (Bareilly Ki Barfi, Bala) and for tales of old-world nobility in decay (Dedh Ishqiya, Gulabo Sitabo). Anurag Kashyap’s Mukkabaaz—the story of an underdog boxer up against the powerful, casteist head of the boxing federation—is another kind of UP story, as outspoken, overstuffed, chaotic and roughly poetic as the place itself./


Uttarakhand: Dum Laga Ke Haisha (2015)

Several films pass through the holy city of Haridwar, but few are set there. Sharat Katariya’s film is an exception, though it’s concerned with matters more earthy than spiritual. The detailing is immaculate: I can’t think of this film without imagining the comic vision of shorts-wearing shakha members exercising by the river.


West Bengal: Bakita Byaktigato (2013)

Bengal isn’t the force in Indian arthouse cinema it once was, but there are still some directors searching for new ways of seeing. One undeservedly obscure title is Pradipta Bhattacharyya’s Bakita Byaktigato. The deliberately documentary-like shooting style brings energy to its vision of Kolkata, and the shift to rural Bengal takes the narrative to wonderfully weird places.

Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl: Review

On the heels of Shakuntala Devi comes another literal-minded biopic. But where Anu Menon’s film muddied its emotional waters and switched around its timelines, Sharan Sharma’s Gunjan Saxena tells a simple and more or less linear story. After opening with Gunjan (Janhvi Kapoor) on her first mission during the 1999 Kargil War, the film loops back to the start and maps a straight line from her childhood dreams of becoming a commercial pilot to her joining the air force to being one of the first two Indian women to pilot a helicopter in combat. This uncomplicated approach seems to mirror the film’s view of its central character, who isn’t shown as exceptional, only exceptionally determined.

When Gunjan is taken into the cockpit of the flight she’s on by a kindly stewardess, it sparks an all-consuming desire in her to become a pilot. Her older brother, Anshuman, tells her girls can’t do that, but her father (Pankaj Tripathi) is encouraging. When she’s old enough, she applies to flying school, but is told she needs to finish 12th grade first. Two years later, she re-applies—and finds out she needs to graduate from college. Three years later, she meets all the requirements but doesn’t know the fees have increased to the point that her family can’t afford it.

This passage—played for laughs, with the same sad-sack clerk disappointing her every time—is an example of how a realistic film must decide whether it can stretch credulity in order to have a little fun. It seems altogether unlikely that Gunjan would be this uninformed about the means to achieving her one ambition in life—so uninformed that she’d repeatedly turn up without finding out the rules of admission. But there’s no mulling over lost opportunities, as the film immediately offers her another chance to fly. Her father suggests she joins the air force and, despite the misgivings of Anshuman (Angad Bedi), who’s now in the army, and her mother, who wants her to “settle", she applies, joins the academy and successfully completes training.

Gunjan finds her brother’s scepticism mirrored and magnified once she becomes an officer. As the first woman on the base, she’s ostracized and condescended to by her fellow officers. She misses her flight training several times as there isn’t a women’s bathroom and she has nowhere to change—an idea seemingly lifted from Hidden Figures, a film about the first female African-American mathematicians at NASA. This passage should be the film’s heart but is hampered by the lack of subtlety and wit. When Gunjan tries to talk to a group of officers at a party, they walk away from her one by one—a scene that would have seemed stagey in the 1950s. “What if there's an emergency and she starts crying?" a captain asks in another scene, trying to get out of flying with her.

This is not a film interested in people as complex beings. Instead, it deploys each character either as an outright detractor or cheerleader for Gunjan. Her father is unconditionally supportive, while her brother remains dismissive of her even after she becomes an officer. All the men on the base keep her at arm’s length; not one of them is shown as vaguely sympathetic. Flight commander Dileep Singh (Vineet Kumar Singh) deliberately keeps her from logging flying hours. Only the commanding officer (Manav Vij) recognises her potential, but instead of ordering Dileep Singh and the rest to do their job, he takes her training on himself. Yet, there's a politeness to the discrimination, as if the makers didn't want to make the armed forces look too close-minded.

Kapoor gives a quiet, unassuming performance. There’s a softness to it that skirts military clichés, but not enough steel when the film calls it. Variation is a problem as well—there isn't much that separates Kapoor’s disappointed face from her angry face from her game face. Her big outburst, when it finally comes, gives the impression of lines learnt and carefully delivered and not someone driven to desperate, career-threatening anger. There’s not much Bedi or Vineet Singh can do to make their one-note sexist characters interesting. It falls to Tripathi to elevate the film, which he does with gentleness and humour. It’s an atypical portrait of a former army man: mild-mannered, loosely strung, someone who registers protest not by barking orders but by getting up from the table in the middle of a meal, saying he’d planned to eat light anyway.

Kargil comes later in the film than I expected. Gunjan, having never flown a combat mission before, finds herself at the centre of a dangerous helicopter rescue, with an Indian Army platoon stranded and under fire. The sequence, filmed in Georgia, lasts only 8 minutes, a rather small amount of time to dedicate to the film’s most dramatic incident (and only war scene). It feels hurried and truncated and not entirely convincing, especially with the memory of Uri’s exceptional action scenes still fresh (also, someone forgot to remove the text saying "Great Battles"—an NDTV episode on the war aired in 2006—from the Kargil footage playing on TV).

Uri, too, had at its centre an army family—Vicky Kaushal’s major, his late father and brother-in-law. The rhythms of that household are essentially militaristic: talk of service and duty, clipped speech, emotions held in reserve. The Saxena family, on the other hand, could be mistaken for any civilian household. Given the surfeit of aggressive patriotism in recent Hindi films, it’s interesting to see Sharma and co-writer Nikhil Mehrotra hold back in this regard. My favourite scene is when Gunjan admits to her father, the night before she leaves home for her training, that she doesn’t want to be in the armed forces out of a desire to serve her country: she just wants to fly. His reply is telling. “Do you think the air force wants people who yell Bharat mata ki jai?" To see a Hindi film dial down rhetoric these days feels downright subversive.

Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl is on Netflix.

Amit Dutta talks 'Wittgenstein', chess, animation and art

Amit Dutta is often described as the best Indian film-maker you haven’t heard of. His films, which fall under the broad umbrella of experimental cinema, have been shown in leading museums and festivals across the world. Retrospectives of his work have taken place at the International Short Film Festival in Oberhausen, Germany; Cinéma du Réel, Centre Pompidou, Paris; and the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, California. His relative obscurity outside art film circles is partly due to the difficulty in finding his works, which is why the ongoing retrospective on MUBI is such an event. Then there’s the work itself: formally constructed, minimalist, allusive. But Dutta’s shorts, features and documentaries also offer unique pleasures, with their subtle cinematic disruptions and tiny miracles of sound and movement.

Dutta’s latest film, Wittgenstein Plays Chess With Marcel Duchamp, Or How Not To Do Philosophy (on MUBI), is a 17-minute animation that adapts an essay of the same name by Steven B. Gerrard. The essay examines how Wittgenstein and Duchamp, both keen chess players, used the game to question language and perception. The film has a winking style of animation—by the director’s wife, Ayswarya S. Dutta—that involves the juxtaposition of cutout figures, objects and backgrounds. It’s a sprightly investigation into the nature of surface appearances and how we perceive meaning, packed with allusions to art, linguistics, philosophy and chess.

Dutta, 42, who lives in Palampur in Himachal Pradesh’s Kangra Valley, wanted to be a chess player before he decided to be a director. He was part of his college chess team in Jammu. Later, he started playing correspondence chess and won silver in the All India Correspondence Championship in 2017. He collects rare chess books, owns a Dubrovnik chess set and composes chess puzzles for children in his free time. Last year, a freewheeling conversation between him and International Chess Master Venkatachalam Saravanan, accompanied by a game of correspondence chess, was published in BOMB magazine. On email, Mint asked Dutta about the making of the film. Edited excerpts:


How did you come across Gerrard's essay, and why did you decide to adapt it?

One of my friends, Jaideep Unudurti, is a wonderful chess player/journalist and science-fiction author. We play chess once in a while. One day, while playing and chatting, he mentioned this article. The moment I read it, it immediately sparked a desire to make something around it. Having moved away from the path of competitive chess, the aesthetics of the game was becoming increasingly attractive and intriguing for me. And the way the essay had connected this aspect with chess players of the calibre of Duchamp and Wittgenstein and their main disciplines was extremely exciting.

After reading the essay, I wrote to Gerrard (who teaches philosophy at Williams College, US), explained the project to him and asked for his permission. He was really kind and readily gave me permission. It took us close to two years to finish the film, all this while he was interested in the project. Once the film was finished, I was nervous showing it to him—to my delight, he was really happy with it and wrote back one of the most wonderful emails I have ever received.


From what angle were you approaching this material—as a chess player, as someone interested in Duchamp/Wittgenstein’s work?

Chess was my point of entry because I wanted to be a chess player when I was young. But, at the same time, I am equally drawn to the interdisciplinary woven-ness of the arts. That was what attracted me to this essay. It provided so many interlinked doorways and windows to ideas and aesthetics behind the facade of a simple chess puzzle. It exactly fits the description of the aphoristic Vishnudharmottara story, where a student seeking to learn image-making is prompted to study painting for a better understanding, and for knowing painting better, he is sent to learn dance and music and poetry and prosody and so on.


You had said in an interview that, starting with ‘Nainsukh’ (his 2010 film), you wanted to make research-based cinema. Was ‘Wittgenstein’ born out of a similar impulse?

Definitely. I find cinema to be a very good tool for anveshan, to discover, for the archaeology of knowledge. At the same time, research is only the external aspect; no research is exciting unless it supports an inner exploration and a feeling of wonder.


Why did you opt for this style of animation?

It developed slowly, of course, with my wife and partner in this film, Ayswarya. We tried various styles and this seemed most resonant with the theme of the essay, where we mostly juxtapose as opposed to creating. So the sum proliferates into much more than the parts.


It felt like the animation has a touch of Karel Zeman and Terry Gilliam, and if we go back further, George Méliès. Were these or any other artists on your and Ayswarya’s minds?

I did not have any style in mind except that I wanted a very rough, hand-made treatment; eventually, I went ahead with Ayswarya’s instincts. Our main inspiration was the art of the Dadas and surrealists themselves. The animators I really like are Hans Richter, Viking Eggeling and Robert Breer. There is a reference to Hans Richter’s work in the film as well. The artwork we have used as motion collages is all connected with the essay; and they have trespassed genres even within their times. They provided the main inspiration for the look and feel. It is an extravagantly derivative work, any influence was welcomed without qualms.


There’s a density of information and reference that makes it difficult to take in everything in one go. For instance, in one frame you have a melted clock, Marcel Duchamp’s ‘Trebuchet’, Max Ernst’s ‘The Hat Makes The Man’, and Duchamp playing chess. Is the hope that people will return to the film and notice more each time?

Ayswarya has a deep interest in art history and philosophy. She was very excited about finding innumerable details that fitted so well with the themes and ideas of the essay. She is also an illustrator, and I asked her to draw certain portions, so that added an element of exposition also. I also believe that an image must not exhaust itself quickly. Just the way we were returning to the themes and discovering more and more the web of ideas that motivated those turn of the century artists and thinkers, and the brilliant way in which Gerrard has opened up those hyperlinks, we wish the viewer can enjoy and expand those threads too. This is an entirely open-source, digital film.

Never forget: How ‘Chinatown’ influenced three Hindi films

(This piece has spoilers for Chinatown, Raat Akeli Hai, Sonchiriya and Manorama Six Feet Under)

Fittingly for a noir, Chinatown casts a long shadow. Roman Polanski’s 1974 film won the Best Original Screenplay Oscar and, unlike its maker—who drugged and raped a minor and then fled to Europe to avoid prosecution—is still regarded highly. Perhaps the greatest colour noir ever, its impact on American film and culture is immense, but even Hindi cinema shows its influence. One famous moment in particular informs three fine Hindi films: Navdeep Singh’s Manorama Six Feet Under (2007), Abhishek Chaubey’s Sonchiriya (2019) and Honey Trehan’s Raat Akeli Hai, released last week.

Hired to dig up dirt on engineer Hollis Mulwray by someone posing as his wife, Evelyn, Los Angeles private eye JJ “Jake" Gittes (Jack Nicholson) photographs the man in the company of a young woman. Mulwray turns up dead in a reservoir, and Gittes is hired by his powerful father-in-law and former business partner, Noah Cross (John Huston), to look into the disappearance of Mulwray’s mistress. As Gittes digs deeper, he uncovers a scam involving the city's water supply that leads back to Cross. Meanwhile, he’s increasingly fascinated by the real Evelyn (Faye Dunaway), Cross’ daughter, who warns him that her father is a dangerous man. When Evelyn is found comforting the supposed mistress, she tells Gittes the girl is actually her sister. In a shocking twist, it’s later revealed that they aren’t sisters but mother and daughter, Cross having raped Evelyn when she was a teenager.

Chinatown fused elements of classic noir—tough private eye, hardboiled dialogue, a femme fatale—with 1970s American cinema’s deep cynicism about the establishment. Thirty-three years later, Navdeep Singh smartly adapted the film as Manorama Six Feet Under. Abhay Deol plays an engineer (and failed detective story writer) named Satyaveer in a small Rajasthan town, who's visited by a mysterious woman. In a scene crisscrossed by shadows, she asks him to find evidence that her husband, irrigation minister Rathore (Kulbhushan Kharbanda), is having an affair. As in Chinatown, his photographs of the mark land him in trouble, the woman is revealed to be an impostor, and there's a murky public works irrigation project.

Manorama’s plot is almost as complicated as Chinatown’s, which is saying something. It isn’t a straight-ahead remake, instead borrowing and rearranging elements from the original—an illegitimate daughter, a mistress, a corrupt cop (it's still very much a remake—which Singh acknowledges by having a scene from the film play on TV). Even the way Vinay Pathak says jjje—jija is Hindi for brother-in-law—while addressing Deol is too close to “JJ" for coincidence. It’s finally revealed that Rathore is a paedophile, who’s supplied with children by an orphanage. In both films, the sexual predations of the men is a metaphor for their figurative preying on the land (in Cross’ case) and the public (in Rathore’s).

In Manorama, one of the thugs who breaks Satyaveer’s fingers to scare him off the case (the reference is to Gittes getting his nose nicked with a knife) was played by a then-unknown Nawazuddin Siddiqui. The actor is the lead in Raat Akeli Hai, playing a Kanpur police inspector named Jatil Yadav who’s called in to investigate the murder of a wealthy old man, Raghubeer Singh, on his wedding night. Honey Trehan’s film seems at first to have more in common with the comic murder mystery Knives Out (2019)—in both films, the deceased’s grasping family members are the suspects. But Raat Akeli Hai keeps pushing in the direction of noir, and when Yadav starts to fall for the victim’s widow, Radha (a haunted Radhika Apte), even as he suspects her, just as Gittes did with Evelyn, the influence of Chinatown becomes clearer.

There’s a scene in Raat Akeli Hai that’s startlingly similar to one in Manorama. Yadav searches an unfamiliar room until he finds a sheaf of photos, after which he’s seen washing his face, just like Satyaveer in the 2007 film. These lead him to the film’s reveal—closer to Chinatown than Manorama’s—that the old man was abusing his school-going niece, who ended up murdering him. I wonder if Raghubeer’s daughter being pregnant in the film was a deliberate red herring for Chinatown fans looking for evidence of incestuous predation. If so, it’s a neat bit of misdirection, as the daughter seems to have secrets she’s withholding while the niece is a brat with little screen time. The resemblance between the antagonists in the three films is unmistakable—high society, silver-haired, powerful, well-dressed, involved in political machinations and sexual deviancy. The protagonists too are cut from a similar cloth—all sleuths, with a stubbornness and gruff moral code, each fascinated by a mysterious woman who seems to need saving.

The third film with an echo of Chinatown has nothing to do with noir or detectives. Sonchiriya is a dacoit Western directed by Abhishek Chaubey, who happens to be one of the producers on Raat Akeli Hai. In his film, Sushant Singh Rajput’s dacoit, Lakhna, helps Indumati (Bhumi Pednekar) as she tries to escape her family after killing her father-in-law; with her is a young girl the old man was abusing. Towards the end of the film, her husband and son catch up with them. As the furious boy holds them at gunpoint, it’s revealed that he is a product of incest and rape. “He was your grandfather. He was your father," Indumati says, in an echo of Evelyn’s pained outburst: “She’s my sister. She’s my daughter. She's my sister and my daughter."

Raat Akeli Hai, Manorama Six Feet Under and Sonchiriya are fine films, each with its own distinct milieu and tone. That they all borrowed, in small and large ways, from the same source is testament to the adaptability and vitality of Chinatown.

Raat Akeli Hai: Review

Has any Indian film used celebratory gunfire at a wedding as a cover for murder? The victim in Raat Akeli Hai is Raghubeer Singh (Khalid Tyabji), aged patriarch of a wealthy Kanpur family. On the night of his wedding—his second, to his former mistress—he’s found dead in his bedroom, with a gunshot wound and multiple stab marks. The case falls to inspector Jatil Yadav (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), who tells the family members firmly, “Yeh jo kaand hua hai na, hum karenge uski jaanch (this incident that has taken place, I’m going to investigate it)."

Siddiqui's slight emphasis on the last word is key: jaanch, process, the chase, is everything here. Jatil may be a cop, but he has a sleuth’s heart. “Naam yaad rakhiyega (remember the name)," he tells Radha (Radhika Apte), Raghubeer’s widow, as he's leaving. It’s the sort of pronouncement you’d expect from Byomkesh Bakshi, arguably India’s most famous fictional detective. Later, Yadav tells powerful local politician Munna Raja (Aditya Srivastava) that he will dig out the truth come what may. Satyanweshi—seeker of truth—was also Byomkesh’s preferred term for himself.

The film itself nods to a classic crime fiction staple: the locked-room mystery. There are shades of Rian Johnson’s Knives Out (2019), in that the suspects are all family members, and are all in the house at the time of the murder: Raghubeer’s druggie son (Nitesh Tiwari); his pregnant daughter (Shweta Tripathi) and her husband (Gyanendra Tripathi); Raghubeer’s brother-in-law (Swanand Kirkire, very droll); his nephew (Nishant Dahiya), niece (Shivani Raghuvanshi) and their formidable mother (Padmavati Rao), in addition to the young domestic worker (Riya Shukla). It’s not a pleasant bunch of people—and Raghubeer is soon shown to be a terrible man. Yet the needle of suspicion keeps pointing towards the most sympathetic character, Radha, whom everyone in the family is awful to.

Through a brief flashback, we learn that Jatil and Radha had met five years ago, as strangers on a train; she might have jumped to her death, but he pulled her back. Five years ago is also when Raghubeer’s first wife was killed in a hit-and-run incident (from the film’s opening sequence, we know it was murder). The train sequence, though not strictly necessary from a narrative point of view, tells us that Radha was presumably on her way to being sold to Raghubeer by her father when Jatil met her, and that she was as miserable then as she is now. It also suggests the dynamic that’ll persist between Radha and Jatil, where she keeps giving up on life and he’s determined to save her.

This is the first film directed by Honey Trehan, one of Hindi cinema’s leading casting directors. Shot with customary grit by Pankaj Kumar and smartly scored by Karan Kulkarni, it’s a cousin to neo-noirs like Manorama Six Feet Under and loquacious Hindi-belt films like Omkara and Ishqiya (the latter’s director, Abhishek Chaubey, is a producer here). Screenwriter Smita Singh, who co-wrote Sacred Games, comes up with wonderful turns of phrase. Jatil’s superior officer (Tigmanshu Dhulia) raps him for working “ekdum vivek shoonya kar ke (reducing reason to zero)". “Tiraskaar karte hain humara (he has contempt for me)," his junior complains. Jatil’s mother (Ila Arun, delightful) reminisces about his deceased father, saying he always spoke lovingly, as if sugar were dissolving on his tongue. “He was a cook," her son retorts. “His job was dissolving sugar."

As Jatil goes to Gwalior to pursue a lead, gruffly mentors his junior officer, and fends off pressure from his superiors and Munna Raja, you might be reminded of Paatal Lok. Raat Akeli Hai does resemble the Amazon series in its bleak outlook and attention to granular detail, though Yadav is a more conventional protagonist than Jaideep Ahlawat’s dogged cop. He’s a creature of habit (another classic sleuth trait), so unreceptive to change that an order of chowmein instead of his regular fried rice provokes a violent reaction. Yet Siddiqui, as only he can, turns this cop without humour or charm, whose defining trait is fixity of purpose, into something attractive and heroic.

Halfway through, I thought the film was making its antagonists too obvious. But Trehan and Singh methodically introduce layers to the case, and the reveal, when it finally comes, is a gut punch. I do wish the build-up hadn’t been so similar to the scene in the Chinatown-inspired Manorama Six Feet Under: Siddiqui rummaging around for clues in an unfamiliar room, finding old photographs, having to wash his face after, just like Abhay Deol in the 2007 film. Chinatown has been a source of inspiration for several fine recent Hindi films, but film-makers perhaps forget that it’s also in the DNA of viewers.

There are things you can do as a writer, a director, when Siddiqui is your lead, which wouldn’t be possible with a traditional hero. Before we even see him, Jatil is rejected because of his dark complexion by a girl his mother presses his photograph on at a wedding (Ila Arun having to hear “rang saaf nahi hai" about her son and replying “par mann saaf hai" would have killed in a theatre). Raghubeer's nephew, meanwhile, is described as a hero-type. With no other major actor would this have been possible, but Siddiqui’s charisma has never obscured his characters’ ordinariness. When Radha rejects Jatil’s romantic overtures, he says, “Hum toh tumhare saamne ekdum saade hain (I’m too simple for you)." Apte soft reply is the film's best line: “Jung khaya hai hamara dil (my heart is rusted)."

Raat Akeli Hai is streaming on Netflix.