Thursday, December 27, 2012

Not coming to a theatre near you

I’m all for watching movies in the hall; it’s the natural order of things, and you can’t underestimate the pleasure of hurling abuse (or a shoe) at someone who won’t turn off their cellphone. Yet, sometimes you just know certain films aren’t going to make it to your friendly neighbourhood multiplex. Here are four cases from last year: movies that are unlikely, for one reason or another, to get a theatrical release in India, but are still worth looking out for on DVD in 2013.  

Magic Mike

Steven Soderbergh, it may be assumed, makes his ‘entertainers’ (the Ocean’s trilogy, Haywire) in order to finance his more ‘serious’ films (Traffic, Che). If this is true, it’s also worth mentioning that Soderbergh doesn’t condescend to, or have contempt for, the multiplex audience. His popcorn films are made with precision and humour, and filled with top-range actors who want a shot at an Oscar in one of his prestige projects. Magic Mike – his film about male strippers that’s based on the pre-fame experiences of its star Channing Tatum – is, on the surface, a lively musical comedy. As he waits for bank loans to materialise and finance his furniture designing ambitions, Mike Lane (Tatum) makes his living working as a stripper at a club in Tampa, Florida. In between all the bumping, grinding and general hell-raising, there are a series of off-the-cuff conversations, mostly between Mike and Brooke (Cody Horn), the level-headed sister of a new recruit he brings in. As they argue about stereotypes and self-delusion, the movie becomes a cracked portrait of its times, especially when Mike insists that he isn’t defined by his profession or his lifestyle, a post-millennial sentiment if ever there were one.

Take This Waltz

After sharing a cab ride home from the airport, Toronto-dweller Margot (Michelle Williams) realises that Daniel (Luke Kirby), an obnoxious stranger she met on the flight, is her neighbour from across the street. As time goes by, her distaste gives way to friendship and flirtation. Only problem is, she’s already married. This is the strange story of Take This Waltz, the close-but-no-cigar film of the year. Director-screenwriter Sarah Polley tries hard to replicate the rhythms of everyday speech, and the conversations end up sounding rather silly at times (never more so than when Daniel verbally seduces Margot in a coffee shop). Daniel’s profession too is offensively cute: he’s a rickshaw-puller by choice. Yet, if you ignore the blind spots, there’s a lot to admire in Take This Waltz. There are fantastic performances by Michelle Williams and Seth Rogen (yes, that Seth Rogen), and a touching turn by comedian Sarah Silverman. The production design – tactile, almost breathing – is a thing of wonder. And there are two unforgettable sequences, both set to the Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star”, that should go some way in ensuring that Williams is nominated for yet another Oscar.

Killer Joe

The nastiest film of 2012 was made by a 77-year-old director. William Friedkin (The French Connection, The Exorcist) worked with Tracy Letts to adapt the latter’s 1993 play about a killer-for-hire and his brush with an unbelievably screwed-up Texan family. When a drug dealer desperate for money hires ‘Killer Joe’ Cooper to bump off his mother for insurance money, he sets into motion a series of events that’ll violently alter the lives of his dim-witted father, foul-mouthed stepmother and dreamy sister, whom Joe keeps as a ‘retainer’. It’s sickeningly violent and very disturbing, even if you’re familiar with Letts’ perversely funny style (he wrote the Pulitzer-winning play August: Osage County). Watch out for Matthew McConaughey, who, as Killer Joe, drops his easy-going shtick and creates a character with all the hypnotic menace and unpredictability of a rattlesnake.

Ruby Sparks

This sophomore effort by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine) would have released in theatres here had it starred Katherine Heigl and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and not Zoe Kazan and Paul Dano. Ruby Sparks is a smart riff on the Greek legend of Pygmalion, in which an artist falls in love with his own creation. The hysteria surrounding his Salinger-like debut is yet to fade, but novelist Calvin Weir-Fields spends his days battling writer’s block and a host of neuroses. One day, he writes about a girl who’s been appearing in his dreams, and the words start to flow. He’s surprised, but not as surprised as when he wakes up one morning to find Ruby Sparks, his creation, alive and in love with him. He soon discovers that he can dictate what Ruby feels by writing about her, which leads to an unsettling second half that alternates between dark comedy and psychological drama. Though Kazan’s screenplay doesn’t push the point, Ruby could be anyone who’s being controlled, physically, artistically or emotionally.

This piece appeared in the December issue of Man's World.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Khiladi 786: Review

Khiladi 786 is number eight in the Khiladi series, a loose franchise that began in 1991 and introduced a new kind of action hero in the husky-voiced Akshay Kumar. All subsequent Khiladi films have starred Kumar, though it’s been 12 years since the last, Khiladi 420. Ashish R Mohan, making his directorial debut here after assisting Rohit Shetty on the Golmaal series, pops the Dabangg/Singham/Son of Sardar template into the microwave, lets it heat for a bit and serves it up to a public that seemingly can’t get enough of silly action comedies.

Apart from Khiladi Kumar, the biggest name attached to the film is Himesh Reshammiya, who’s written the story, composed the music and lent his nasal twang to most of the songs. He also plays an inept matchmaker who, in an attempt to get back into the good books of his father, vows to bring Bahattar Singh (Kumar) and Indu Tendulkar (Asin Thottumkal) together in holy matrimony. Given that Bahattar is a criminal – albeit one who beats up other criminals to help out the Punjab police – and Indu the daughter of a Mumbai don (Mithun Chakraborty), it would seem a pretty straightforward match. But that’s too easy for Reshammiya and Mohan, who contrive to bring the entire Singh clan to Mumbai, and have both sides pretend to be policemen. With Rahul Singh filling in as Asin’s jealous boyfriend and token villain, the stage is set for a lot of over-the-top muscle flexing, pronouncements of Punjabi pride and songs that go “lonely lonely tere bin”.

It’s not like there’s no fun to be had. Kumar, a less tightly wound star than Salman Khan or Ajay Devgn, tosses off all his lines with a wink, while Raj Babbar (as Bahattar’s father Sattar), Chakraborty and the perpetually on-edge Rahul Singh are effectively hammy. Some of the gags – Kumar walking on top of a row of afros, for example – are so outrageous they work, and character names like Margaret Mandela Kaur are weird even for Bollywood. But Mohan seems terrified of boring the audience – he’s constantly speeding the action up and slowing it down, a trick which was already stale in 2010. For all the progress made by just-outside-the-mainstream Hindi films this year, no one seems to be giving the slightest thought to changing the staple Bollywood action comedy formula. Considering the brisk business these films do, no one’s likely to attempt it in a hurry either.

This review appeared in Time Out Delhi.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

2012: The year in close-up

As 2012 draws to a close and critics across the country start slotting the year’s releases into hits and flops, good films and awful ones, here’s a year-end list with considerably smaller ambitions. Instead of looking at the year in long shot, as it were, I’m going to do an extreme close-up. Here are a handful of moments which, for me, best represent what Bollywood’s been up to these past 12 months. Some are stand-out scenes in bad films, others disappointing interludes in good ones. For one reason or the other, these are likely to be the little details that come to mind when I look back on Hindi cinema in 2012. (Unlike the makers of Barfi!, I’d also like to acknowledge upfront my debt to Richard T Jameson and Kathleen Murphy’s yearly column ‘Moments Out of Time’, whose structure I’ve borrowed for this piece.)
Irrfan Khan training his would-be dacoits in Paan Singh Tomar, reminiscent of similar scenes in Bandit Queen. Tomar’s director Tigmanshu Dhulia was in charge of casting on Shekhar Kapur’s film.
The touching concern shown by Parambrata Chatterjee’s young cop towards the very pregnant Vidya Balan in Sujoy Ghosh’s Kahaani. The ordinariness of Bob Biswas, insurance agent and serial killer. The use of the city of Calcutta as a character in itself. If this was the year of the Bengali director in Bollywood, Kahaani was the first blow delivered.
The camera gazing voyeuristically at Manoj Bajpayee taking a bath in Gangs of Wasseypur I; a neat reversal of the traditional ‘bathing beauty’ gender roles in Hindi cinema.
A mother pointing out to her daughter the man she once loved but gave up – the precise moment when one realised that Barfi! wasn’t a tribute but a rip-off. Stealing silent movie gags is all very well (The Artist got five Oscars for it), but who steals from The Notebook? 
The ‘Raabta’ sequence from Agent Vinod. This flawlessly executed, intricate, unbroken shot – clocking in at 3 minutes and 22 seconds – was the set-piece of the year. Saif and Kareena dodge a motel-full of assassins as the camera weaves its way around arguing couples, blind piano players and baby strollers with machine guns in them.
The year of the chameleon: Nawazuddin Siddiqui as a cop in Kahaani, a mafia boss in Gangs of Wasseypur and a freedom fighter in Chittagong. (He was also in Miss Lovely and Patang, both of which did the festival circuit rounds, and will play a pivotal role in the much-anticipated Talaash.)    
Annu Kapoor in Vicky Donor, delivering the weirdest history lesson in ages, one that relates Alexander the Great and Partition to sperm count. Plus, a new high: Mummyji and Dadiji sitting in the dark and drinking whiskey.
Run, run, run: Joginder Parmar sprinting for his life, CPU clutched to his chest, in Shanghai; Perpendicular skidding through the narrow lanes in Gangs of Wasseypur II; Paan Singh Tomar running for a country that wants his medals, not his problems. 
The two most anti-feminist, say-it-ain’t-so decisions of the year: Parineeti Chopra forgiving Arjun Kapoor for taking advantage of her in Ishaqzaade; a betrayal by the film of its only appealing character, and of Chopra’s thrilling defiance up to that point. A close second: Deepika Padukone deciding that she needs to become a Bharatiya nari to win her love back in Cocktail.
Films with exactly one successful joke: Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu, with a bemused Imran Khan sitting through a job interview in Japanese; Fatso, where heaven is a red tape-riddled, error-prone government office; Rowdy Rathore, in which Akshay Kumar ‘rewinds’ Sonakshi Sinha walking by; Kya Super Kool Hain Hum, just for its title (will they add a ‘duper’ for the sequel?).
Abhay Deol in Shanghai, praying as his laptop plays ‘Vishnu Sahasranamam’. Also, from the same film, Farooque Sheikh’s reading of the line “Haathi ho tum. Insult nahin bhoolte”. 
Roshan Seth, a bulldog and a haggard-looking Salman Khan in a bags-under-the-eyes conversation for the ages in Ek Tha Tiger. If Khan was losing sleep over the opening, he shouldn’t have. Ek Tha Tiger’s earnings (250 crores and counting) will probably see him end this year as he’s done the last three – the star of the highest-grossing film. (The fact that Ek Tha Tiger, Bol Bachchan, Rowdy Rathore and Housefull 2 – all panned to various degrees by reviewers – were some of the top money-earners this year tells its own little story about the gap between critical opinion and public taste.)
Best use of soundtrack in 2012: The unexpected change from ominous strings to the gentle rain of Sneha Khanwalkar’s ‘Moora’ in Gangs of Wasseypur II. It’s an indication that even though he has a bullet in his leg and gunmen desperately looking for him, Faisal Khan’s hard day’s night will soon be over.

This piece appeared in GQ's year-end issue. It was written a while back, but nothing especially compelling has happened since then, with the exception of Luv Shuv Tey Chicken Khurana. If I sat down to write it today, the list would mostly be the same. 

Monday, December 3, 2012

Stardust Memories and Zelig

By 1980, Woody Allen had already made Bananas, Sleeper, Love and Death and Annie Hall, and through them established a comic persona that was identifiably and uniquely his. In 1979, he made Manhattan, his love poem to New York. Then, a year later, he pulled the rug out from under everyone’s feet with Stardust Memories, a vitriolic comedy about the utter difficulty of being a celebrity that riffed on Fellini’s . Allen played a seeming self-portrait called Sandy Bates. Sandy is a neurotic director of comedies whose every joke is analysed, and who keeps getting asked why he doesn’t make them like his early, funny ones anymore (Allen had directed the Bergamanesque Interiors in 1978). He ping-pongs from girlfriend to crush to meaningless fling, the memory of his troubled former lover haunting him all the while.

Stardust Memories is funny, but it isn’t much fun. The jokes keep coming, each more sour and sarcastic than the next. No one is spared – the greedy, grabbing public, the supercilious critics, even Sandy/Woody himself. Everyone assumed Allen was drawing from his own experiences, though the director denied this in later interviews. In either case, explorations into the nature of celebrity have been a recurring theme of Allen’s films since then. This includes his most recent release, To Rome with Love, which has a lot in common with Stardust Memories. The phrase “Ozymandias melancholia” is spoken in both, and Ellen Page’s Monica is a close cousin of Jessica Harper’s Daisy. Both are sharply satirical of fame and its attendant vulgarities, though To Rome with Love does with a wry smile what Stardust Memories does with a sneer.

After Stardust Memories, Allen began work on a film called Zelig. Once again, the subject was the slippery nature of celebrity and public expectations. This time, however, instead of using a framework that could be interpreted as autobiographical, Allen structured his film as a mockumentary. He played Leonard Zelig, a Jazz-era human chameleon who assumes the personality of whoever he’s with. This makes him a huge sensation, but what price fame, Allen asks, if you’re not really your own person? Allen inserted shots of himself into footage from the 1920s; we see Zelig on the field with Babe Ruth, and sitting behind Hitler during a rally. It’s a witty, elusive film, unlike anything else directed by Allen. It was very well-received upon its release in 1983, and Allen liked the idea of disappearing into the 1920s so much, he returned to the theme in 2011’s Midnight in Paris.