Saturday, June 23, 2012

Kick-Ass: DVD Review

Kick-Ass was an important step in the evolution of the geek wish fulfillment fantasy industry. What this film said to comic book fans, the driving force behind the superhero movie industry, was: “You own us anyway, so why don’t we give you a starring role.” Thus, you get nerdy, nondescript Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson) putting on a silly green costume and heading out to fight crime as self-titled superhero Kick-Ass. After a video of him barely fending off some thugs goes viral, he becomes famous. Soon, for reasons that barely register, the mob is gunning for him.

When this movie, directed by Matthew Vaughn and based on Mark Millar’s comic of the same name, released in 2010, it caused a stir because of its un-PG-13 tendencies. Until then, even darker comic book movies had kept a lid on cussing and violence. Kick-Ass ripped that convention apart by giving its youngest character, a more capable superhero called Hit Girl (Chloë Grace Moretz), a foul mouth and a capacity for creative bloodshed last seen in Uma Thurman’s Bride from Kill Bill. The scene where Hit Girl takes out a mini army in a hallway, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts’ “Bad Reputation” playing in the background, was as guilty a pleasure as Hollywood provided that year.

Kick-Ass is best digested as a nasty-minded, kinetic piece of entertainment (Vaughn’s past work has been in the same vein; he directed the gangster flick Layer Cake, and was producer on Snatch). Yet, there’s something not quite right about a film which celebrates average school-going geeks as superheroes and yet excludes a majority of them from its audience (the film was released with an R-rating). Vaughn’s next directing job was X-Men: First Class, an entertaining summer flick, sure, but as conventional as they come. So much for rattling the cage. 

This review appeared in Time Out Delhi.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Shins - Port of Morrow

For a while, The Shins were the indiest of the indie. Pitchforked, quite literally, into the limelight, they released three albums that melded the nervy lyrics of frontman James Mercer to sublime lo-fi pop. However, when Mercer fired keyboardist Marty Crandall and drummer Jesse Sandoval in 2008, it left him the only original member of the band, and forced fans to come to terms with the fact that the Shins was now effectively The James Mercer Project. Port of Morrow is therefore likely to be judged not only on its own merits, but also in terms of its adherence to or departure from the Shins sound.

For this album, Mercer’s called upon some of his old bandmates, members of his current touring outfit and a few hired killers. One of the guests is former Sleater-Kinney drummer Janet Weiss, whose backbeat lends “The Rifle’s Spiral” and “Simple Song” a solidity that wasn’t there on the band’s previous albums. Shins followers might point to this and other evidences of a tightened pop structure (especially on the ballady “It’s Only Life”) and moan that Mercer’s been listening to too much American Idol. It’s true that Port of Morrow mirrors indie’s steady drift towards the mainstream. But there’s enough of the old Mercer in here as well. His falsetto on the Portishead-like title track makes for a refreshingly weird closer. And in the shimmering “Bait and Switch”, he sings “High from my psychic derailer/ Drive this car to the sea/ Spend the night as high as a cannon, a towering hemlock.” Can’t see Michael Bublé covering that. 

This review was brought to you by Time Out Delhi, home to the worst coffee in the capital. 

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Mirch Masala: Not so hot

Mirch Masala has been called an ‘important film’ and a ‘classic’, but I doubt its supporters would be able to explain why without throwing an anthropology textbook at the reader. I can just visualise a review of the film that talks about subaltern tradition and the reformist movement and the idea of woman as avenging goddess. The truth, however, is that there’s less here than meets the eye.

The film is a strange blend of two disparate genres – the social reformist drama and the Western. The first is in plain sight from the start, as unsubtle attempts are made to tackle several ‘big’ themes: women’s empowerment, rural education, caste and class consciousness. The second emerges gradually; you can see it in the film’s borrowing of that stock Western situation – the posse holed up awaiting the enemy’s attack – as well as in the way a lot of the action is staged. There’s also a definite Morricone twang to the music in the second half, which actually goes quite well with the traditional Rajasthani music on the rest of the soundtrack.

It all starts when a subedar (tax collector) played by Naseeruddin Shah lays eyes on village girl Sonbai (Smita Patil) and decides, twirling his moustache, that he must have her. She resists his advances, even as  the villagers try and convince to sacrifice herself for the greater good. After a slap and an impressively constructed chase sequence through a sea of drying red chillies, she takes shelter in a warehouse presided over by an old man with impossibly bushy eyebrows, who on closer inspection turns out to be Om Puri. Most of the other women in the village are also in there, and Mirch Masala neatly turns from class oppression to a battle of the sexes.

You could say that the male population of the village asking Sonbai to give herself up is a metaphor for the abandonment of the motherland in the face of foreign oppression. Even if it is, does it really matter? Metaphors that heavy-handed are best left to idealogues. I doubt it’s a coincidence that the headmaster’s spectacles are shattered in the same fashion that the old woman’s in Battleship Potemkin are. Potemkin’s director Sergei Eisenstein used his visuals to drive home a simplistic worldview, albeit with great power. Mirch Masala is just as simplistic, but what is its point? That women in rural India are denied their rights? It’s hard to believe that this came as a surprise to viewers in 1987. Yet, instead of approaching the topic from a new angle, this film uses stock characters to espouse themes that other directors had already tackled in the decade past with more subtlety and insight.

For all its misfires and manipulations, Mirch Masala isn’t devoid of appeal. The camerawork is insidiously good at times; note the masterful swivel and pan around a group of villagers sitting with the subedar. There’s the blanched colour palette highlighting the fiery red of the chillies. Smita Patil and Deepti Naval battle patriarchy, tradition and the limitations of the screenplay to come up with defiant performances. Om Puri is fine as the grizzled gunslinger; his relative composure makes Naseer’s over-the-top subedar seem all the more ridiculous. No one, though, embarrasses themselves as much as Raj Babbar in a bizarre freakout scene that had me wondering why he’d want to exert himself so if he was just putting in a guest appearance.  

Mirch Masala is proof that alternative cinema in this country is by no means immune to a good cliché. Hindi cinema has gotten by for so long without subtlety that very few filmmakers seem to think it necessary, or even desirable. This will not change until we start to re-evaluate our ‘classics’, and decide which ones actually deserve to carry that label.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Notes on Party

I recently saw a superbly restored version of Govind Nihalani’s 1983 film Party on DVD. I scribbled down some notes afterwards, which I’ve reproduced here. While they may not make much sense to anyone uninitiated with the unique pleasures of this film, I’m hoping those who’ve seen it will recognise my eagerness to say something – anything – about it quickly, before those precious first impressions evaporate.

- The cast is like an honour roll of parallel cinema actors. Wouldn’t it have been great if the movie had no opening credits? Imagine not knowing who was going to walk through the door next, and it turning out to be Amrish Puri, Deepa Sahi, KK Raina, Om Puri, Rohini Hattangadi, Manohar Pandey, Shafi Inamdar…

- Robert Altman appears to be the dominant influence on the way the movie is structured, but I wouldn’t bet my life on it. For one, I haven’t really heard of any Indian director citing the Hollywood maverick as an influence. Also, none of Nihalani’s other work that I’ve seen points to him. Maybe it’s just that the film is ‘Altmanesque’, in that it has a large ensemble cast, uses stylistic tropes like overlapping dialogue, and satirises without discrimination.

- Some of the observations are as true today as they (presumably) were then. The two unidentified men at the start of the party – the ones who say “Kitna culture hai…aur culture ke saath contacts bhi badhta hai” – are a hilarious send-up of the kind of hangers-on still seen at film screenings and art exhibitions. It’s fun to see how the same situation can still serve as a send-up today, but with the roles reversed: when Tusshar Kapoor and his buddies crash a high-society book launch in 2011’s Shor in the City, they are the social critics, and the joke is on the attendees.

- “Subhash once played the Elephant Man, don’t let that bother you”, says Pearl Padamsee’s Ruth at one point. It’s a gem of a non-sequitur, but is it also a reference to David Lynch’s film, which caused such a splash in the art film world when it released in 1980, three years before Party? The only other thing that’s Lynchian about this film is Naseeruddin Shah’s brief but horrifying cameo at the end.

- This is the Hindi film as far as onscreen drinking is concerned. As in real life, you have the abstainers (Deepa Sahi’s Sona), the self-appointed saakis (Amrish Puri’s eponymous doctor), the ones who can hold their drink (Monohar Singh’s Divkar), and ones who can’t (Rohini Hattangadi’s Mohini). Some are drinking to lose their inhibitions, some to forget their problems, some just because that’s what people do at parties. A large amount of the dialogue revolves around alcohol and its effects: “Please give me a small brandy, I feel so tired”; “Drinking won’t solve anything”; “I’m drunk” (in response to “You’re looking more and more radiant”).

- The structure is unlike that of any other Hindi film. Like Altman’s films, Party is composed of fragments of conversations, interactions, incidents. (You could argue that Monsoon Wedding was similarly structured. Could it be that Mira Nair’s inspiration was Party and not Altman’s A Wedding, as most Western critics assumed?) The film keeps shifting its focus from one conversation to another, a high-risk stratagem that could have ended up disorienting viewers (that it didn’t is a testament to Nihalani’s clarity of vision and the presence of the great Renu Saluja at the editing table).

- “All art…is a weapon,” Avinash (Om Puri) says. And its true that art is lethally deployed in this film. Nihalani’s camera (he shot the film himself) literally stalks the participants, creeping up on them around pillars, doors and bushes, hoping to catch them during an unguarded moment. And the script is a polished knife. Divkar’s response to Mrs Rane’s suggestion that they, the mannered intellectual elite, had been in search of the truth – “Hoax!” – is as breathtaking and self-critical a moment as any in Nihalani’s oeuvre.

- The ending is a head-scratcher. In what looks like a scene from a zombie movie, a battered, tongue-less Amrit (Naseeruddin Shah) is shown staggering towards the camera. This ghastly vision is seen by Divkar and Bharat. You can see why Nihalani chose these two. Amrit’s moral authority already haunts Divkar – this gruesome image could almost be an extreme manifestation of the poet’s guilt. For Bharat, on the other hand, this walking corpse is like a premonition. Till now, he’s been keen to follow in Amrit’s footsteps. In the same way Hazaron Khwaishein Aisi would do two decades later, Nihalani shows him – and the audience – the stakes involved.

- The least developed plot strand is that of Soni Razdan’s character semi-cheating on her husband with Pearl Padamsee’s escort. But even their scenes have a point of interest – Nihalani’s use of uber-pop numbers from the ‘80s. That the angry young auteur of Indian cinema chose to include such cheesy synthpop classics as “Maniac” and “What a Feeling” is intriguing; the rest of the film has a restrained Indian classical score. Did Nihalani use these numbers (both from Adrian Lyne’s Flashdance, released that same year) to ground his film in a particular place and time? Was he being ironic? Or did he just need some diegetic sound, and reach for the nearest mixtape?

- Party is full of little seductions. Malvika dances into sin. Bharat is seduced, not by an increasingly enamoured Vrinda, but by the very idea of Amrit. And there’s a delightful mutual seduction scene between playwright (Divkar) and actor (Shafi Inamdar's Ravi), each telling the other just what they want to hear.