Monday, December 30, 2013

Flashes of Hindi cinema in 2013

Started writing a year-end wrap of sorts, but scrapped it midway. Putting it up here anyway. 

In Indian cinema’s 100th year, things progressed as they always have – in fits and starts. Monster hits like Chennai Express and Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani made one long for a little Whedonesque wit and surprise, but at least they were better than the rank offenders which ended up making tons of money, like Grand Masti and Raanjhanaa. At the other end of spectrum, Indian independent films were feted at Cannes, Sundance, Berlin and Telluride – and, for a change, released theatrically in their own country.

Several filmmakers continued down the path of gender insensitivity. In Chor Chor Super Chor, a lone female passenger on a bus in Delhi at night is pawed at and pushed around in a seemingly unconscious recreation of the December 2012 rape case. Incredibly, this was the setting for a musical number, played for laughs. Grand Masti and Besharam had rape jokes; the latter also had a stalker for a hero. The worst offender, though, was the ‘innocent’ male lead of Raanjhanaa, who stalks his childhood love, drives her into a river, slits his wrists when she rejects him, and sabotages her wedding.

Gangster of the year: Bholi Punjaban, Chadda’s tracksuit-wearing, tattoo-sporting, trash-talking gangster in Fukrey.

Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s “Hello saaar” interrupting Nimrat Kaur’s voiceover; the director’s POV morphing into that of a wedding photographer; the insistent tugging of a string filling in for unnecessary dialogue: All instances of the visual wit that rescued The Lunchbox from disappearing into the melancholia of its characters’ lives.

François Truffaut once divided the films of Orson Welles into those which have snow and those which have guns. Lootera had both guns and snow, but rather than Welles, Vikramaditya Motwane’s impossibly fluent direction brought to mind the melancholy romances of Wong Kar-wai.

The cinematic dust-up of the year occurred when the Film Federation of India sent The Good Road to the Oscars, and the phalanx of producers and promoters associated with The Lunchbox took up arms against them. Just when everyone was tiring of Team Lunchbox’s hissy fit, the FFI fired off a letter so pompous that suddenly, they were the bad guys. Lunchbox director Ritesh Batra put an end to the madness with a terse letter to the Federation, saying he’d moved on to “more productive pursuits”.

You had us at gulabi bhains. No film this year was as willing to risk looking stupid as Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola. 

The ongoing Ali-Frazier battle between Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Irrfan Khan. Siddiqui won the first round with his half hour of mastery in Bombay Talkies. Khan responded with Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster Returns. They sparred with Aatma and D-Day, before going head-to-head in The Lunchbox. Yet, the best performance of the year came from Raj Kumar Yadav in Shahid.  

The Good Road and Ship of Theseus – two films joined at the hip by NFDC’s Film Bazaar, by the fact that they’re both debut features, by travelling shots, by terrific location photography and sound design, and by their contrasting fortunes on Twitter.

It must have been tempting to offer Milkha Singh the excuse of a lifetime – the memory of his father being killed in Partition riots – to absolve him from not placing at the 1976 Olympics. Yet, an excuse is exactly what it is, a bit of creative liberty that’s at odds with the meticulous recreation of other aspects of the runner’s life. If Bhaag Milkha Bhaag runs away with history, Kai Po Che! runs from it. It isn’t like the film refuses to acknowledge the 2002 Gujarat riots, it just refuses to acknowledge them in any meaningful way. After a few minutes of looting and burning, the narrative leaps forward to a teary reconciliation. There’s no rule that says that you must also come to terms with the history you put on screen, but failure to do so does leave one open to allegations of opportunism, or denial, or both.

Shuddh Desi Romance, which blew raspberries at middle-class morality.   

Supporting turns that ran away with films: Saurabh Shukla as a judge who really enjoys his lunch in Jolly LLB; the devastating Prakash Belawadi, running rings around John Abraham in Madras Cafe; Dibyendu Bhattacharya in BA Pass, chess enthusiast, philosopher, pimp.

A nod to PVR’s Director’s Rare banner, which released indie efforts like Tasher Desh and Fruitvale Station, regional films like Baandhon and Lucia, documentaries, restored versions of classics like Chashme Buddoor, and a lot more. Some releases were better than others, but they all had one thing in common – none of them would have gotten a theatrical release under normal circumstances.

The best tribute to Indian cinema in its 100th year wasn’t the much-hyped Bombay Talkies but the unexpected theatrical release of Shivendra Singh Dungarpur’s documentary Celluloid Man, about film archivist PK Nair, preserver of old prints at the National Film Archive in Pune and inspiration to several generations of filmmakers.

And the others: Short Term 12, Blue is the Warmest Color, No, The Selfish Giant, To the Wonder, Before Midnight. My favourite: The Great Beauty.  

Friday, December 27, 2013

What the Fish: Review

There’s been a lot of rubbish on the big screen these past few months. Yet, Gurmmeet Singh’s What the Fish is so irredeemably bad it stands out. For starters, this has to the worst movie title in decades. The plot is excruciatingly predictable. Not one character is worth rooting for. And you can judge its grip on reality by the fact that the tubby Manu Rishi Chadha plays a Casanova.

Sudha Mishra (Dimple Kapadia; bad-tempered and sadly unappealing) has left her house in Vasant Kunj in the hands of her niece’s boyfriend. She leaves two sets of instructions – feed the fish, water the money plant. Of course, in time-honoured tradition, boyfriend organises a party the minute she leaves, and things go south. A half-dozen or so characters, all deeply uninteresting, assume responsibility for home, fish and plant, and fail to do the needful in ways that are the opposite of amusing.

I won’t bother telling you about the Jat in love with a boxer from Manipur and trying to blackmail another boxer with a cross-dressing mujra MMS. Let me point you, instead, towards the rotten heart of the movie. It’s a ten-minute sequence involving a girl from Saharanpur who’s been left in charge of Sudha’s house by her fiancée. To make matters worse, said fiancée’s friend – whom he’d requested to keep an eye on her – comes on strong. There's a stunningly insensitive scene, played for laughs, where the Lothario scares her into inviting him into the house. Amazingly, he then cons his way into her bed. The next morning, instead of feeling violated or, at the very least, guilty, she looks happy. Turns out she’s so simple-minded she assumes that because they slept together, they’re husband and wife now. Welcome to the desert of the really stupid.

This review appeared in Time Out Delhi.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Bullett Raja: Review

Ten years after Haasil, the curse of Ashutosh Rana returns to haunt Tigmanshu Dhulia. In that 2003 film, the rivalry of Ashutosh Rana and Irrfan Khan is brought to a screeching halt around half-time when one half of the equation is eliminated. It was a bold move, but cost the film a good deal of intensity. Something similar happens halfway through Bullett Raja, and again, it proceeds like all the air has been let out.

Raja (Saif Ali Khan) and Rudra (Jimmy Sheirgill) are political commandos – in reality, mid-level thugs who roam around Lucknow providing political protection and intimidation. They’re a Hindi heartland Butch Cassidy and Sundance, outlaws who’re more concerned with their legend than their mission, wisecracking as they shoot, mistrustful of what women might do to their dynamic. When they’re both onscreen, the film has a genial crackle. When it’s only Saif, however, Bullett Raja isn’t too much different from Dabangg or any of the others that have followed in its wake.

In interviews leading up to its release, Dhulia explained how Bullett Raja was his version of a commercial Bollywood film. Unless you’re looking too carefully – and because it’s Dhulia, people will – it might seem like anyone’s idea of a typical masala entertainer. Even when Bullett Raja subverts, it does so by degrees. The heroine doesn’t simper or fawn over the hero, but her “honour” is still the driving force behind a key scene. Ravi Kishan turns up as a contract killer in drag (which leads to a fun scene with two sari-clad figures canoodling on a bed), but becomes a stock villain after a while. At least Sheirgill’s dry asides act as a deflator for Raja’s boasts.

Dhulia seems to be enjoying himself doing all the silly stuff he doesn’t get to indulge in in his more realistic films. A song sequence in Kolkata has glass exploding in slo-mo, rows of choreographed yellow taxis, and Raja and his Bengali girlfriend Mitali (Sonakshi Sinha) going through about six wardrobe changes. The fight scenes are loud and explosive – and completely incoherent. If the action movie is here to stay for the foreseeable future, can directors please construct sequences that honour spatial geography, if not the laws of gravity and common sense? Bullett Raja’s shootouts and fight scenes are, essentially, cheating – cutting from Raja and Rudra jumping to their opponents flying through the air is neither a thrill, nor an explanation as to what happened.

Khan does a reasonable job of making Raja less of a showboat than Chulbul Pandey or Tees Maar Khan, but Langda Tyagi he ain’t. Sheirgill, who usually reserves his best for Dhulia, is a blast. Chunky Pandey’s brief cameo is amusing, if really strange; Gulshan Grover’s is nostalgic in its hamminess. Vidyut Jamwal, whose Kalaripayattu-inspired fighting skills adds another layer of unreality to the action sequences, turns up as a super-cop. If there’s something important to be said about Sinha’s performance, I’m not sure what that is. In fact, the film left me with roughly the same feelings. Like Kishan’s assassin, Bullett Raja – despite an amusing first half – is a Dhulia film in commercial drag.

This review appeared in Time Out Delhi.

Gori Tere Pyaar Mein: Review

This is what happens when a production house best known for its stories about the rich and the indolent trains its sights on the downtrodden. The message of Gori Tere Pyaar Mein, Punit Malhotra’s second film with Dharma Productions, seems to be “It takes a village”. But what the film is really saying is that village-dwellers can’t solve their own problems without the help of someone from the city, no matter how unmotivated or under-qualified these saviors might be.

But the village is just a prop anyway, a device to help Sriram (Imran Khan, an unconvincing Iyer) find the human being hidden deep inside his lazy, narcissistic self. Sriram is there to convince “activist” – and occasional midwife – Dia (Kareena Kapoor Khan) to forsake her do-gooding in the Gujarati village of Jhumli and come home. Years ago, the two were in a relationship which ended badly; the details of this take up the marginally superior first half. Now, he must win her love back by getting a bridge built for the villagers. Isn’t it just super-convenient that he has an architecture degree up his sleeve?

None of this, as you may have guessed, is remotely interesting. Kapoor acts like she’s still on the sets of Satyagraha, while Khan keeps winking at the camera like it's his friend. There are small roles for Shraddha Kapoor and Anupam Kher, but the only actor who makes any impact is Nizhalgal Ravi, a veteran of Tamil and Telugu cinema, as Sriram's father. It’s a wonder a film this slight and insubstantial can still go on for two-and-a-half hours, but it does. However, by the time a teary village kid tells Sriram – who’s just sold off their land to have a chemical factory built on it – that he wants to “be like you bro”, many in the audience may have exercised their right to get up and leave.

This review appeared in Time Out Delhi.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Goliyon Ki Rasleela Ram-Leela: Review

Two Gujju households, both alike in dignity. In rural Kutch, where we lay our scene. It’s the Romeo and Juliet remake you didn’t know you wanted.

It makes sense that Sanjay Leela Bhansali would pick this particular Shakespeare play. Romeo and Juliet is melodramatic, colourful and full of grand gestures – things that get said about every Bhansali film, good or bad. If you think Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 version was over the top, wait till you see what Bhansali has in store.

The Saneras and the Rajadis have been fighting for centuries, which is quite believable, since all they do in the film is make elaborate threats to wipe each other out. Our star-crossed lovers are Ranveer Singh’s Ram, from Team Rajadi, and Deepika Padukone’s Leela, from Team Sanera (Ram-Leela! Get it?) They fall for each other, do the mandatory balcony scene, elope. They’re tracked down, of course, and from there it’s just a matter of time – an hour and a half more – before they do what’s expected of them.

Bhansali, as is his wont, starts out in third gear, shifts to fifth, and keeps it there for the rest of the film. There are moments when the melodrama is so heightened you’re carried along by the sheer hysteria of it all. There’s little that Bhansali won’t try – Leela’s mother chopping her daughter’s finger because she won’t take off Ram’s ring is almost Shakespearean in its ridiculousness.

Whoever wrote the pre-credits message claiming that no peacocks, living or dead, were used in the film obviously wasn’t taking into account Ranveer Singh’s performance. Singh, with a six-pack so defined it looks like it’s made of plastic, plays every scene like he’s been smeared with chilli powder, grimacing and seething and biting everyone’s head off. Padukone, wisely keeping to a lower key, is much more effective, especially in the first half, where she’s the most forward Juliet since Parineeti Chopra in Ishaqzaade. Gulshan Devaiah and Richa Chadda get little to do, though Supriya Pathak is mighty scary as the leader of the Saneras.

Though the sheer visual bombast can get wearying after a while, there’s no denying that Ram-Leela is an attractive-looking film. The director’s cinematic eye is as attuned to colour and flash as ever, but there’s nothing compelling happening underneath the surface. As has become customary, Bhansali the stylist passes the baton to Bhansali the storyteller and watches in frustration as he drops it.

This review appeared in Time Out Delhi. Could have been better. So could the film.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Satya 2: Review

Satya 2 isn’t the worst Ram Gopal Varma film this year, but audiences may end up rejecting it as emphatically as they did The Attacks of 26/11. It'll remind them that Varma once made films as good as Satya, even though his latest has little to do with that film beyond the fact that both are set in the Mumbai underworld and the director probably thought it a good idea to revisit the site of his greatest triumph on its 15th anniversary. Varma is clearly daring audiences to compare him against his younger self.

Like the earlier film, this one also begins with a shadowy man, Satya (Puneet Singh Ratn), coming in from another town; this time, however, his arrival is accompanied by a voice-over which informs us that he will revolutionise the Mumbai crime world. So much for suspense. We watch his steady, unimpeded rise – aided by the dumbest, dullest set of stock villains assembled in a long time. As Satya goes from right-hand man to a crooked builder to lord of his own crime syndicate, which he calls Company, you’d expect the film to explain why he’s doing all this. But beyond a vague mention of a dead Naxalite father, we’re offered little insight into his psyche.

After churning out gangster films for years, Varma seems to have bought into the self-serving arguments of his antagonists. It’s one thing to have Satya think he’s running a Robin Hood-style outfit, quite another to allow that opinion to go entirely unchallenged. A lot of time is spent trying to convince us that the organisation he’s building is cutting-edge, but his methods – poisoning, exploding ear piece – have all the nostalgia value of a Vijay Anand thriller. Not that you should take anything the film says at face value. “In our organisation, we won’t use shooters,” Satya declares. Five minutes later, two people have been shot.

Ratn’s performance is a single note played in a minor key. Physically unimposing, he glares his way through scenes, a humourless variation on the “reasonable gangster" archetype. Anaika Soti, as the love interest, overcompensates for his lack of emotion, biting her lip and widening her eyes as if she’s trying to channel Sridevi in Sadma. The camera, meanwhile, is on its own trip – wandering off for repeated aerial shots, looking up from under a translucent chess board. There’s a brief moment of surreal wit when a smoking gun barrel peeks through a hole in a billboard. But that’s lifted from Once Upon a Time in the West – the kind of film which now seems beyond Varma.

Related: Piece I did for GQ on 15 Years of Satya.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

I’m sticking with Lou

I’ll be your mirror 
Reflect what you are, in case you don’t know” 

Lou Reed, who died earlier this week from liver disease, didn’t just write these lines. He lived them. Throughout his 50 odd years in music, he held a mirror up to those who rarely got a second thought – Jacks in corsets and Janes in vests, the twisted and unkind. From 1965 to 1970, he fronted one of the most uncompromising bands in rock history. Brian Eno once said that while only a handful of people bought the first Velvet Underground album, those who did went out and started their own bands.

Nothing prepares you for the first time you hear The Velvet Underground & Nico. After the deceptive calm of “Sunday Morning”, “I’m Waiting for the Man” literally pounces on you; Sterling Morrison hacking away on rhythm guitar, John Cale comping furiously on piano, Maureen Tucker banging on the tom-toms, Reed unleashing stinging curlicues on guitar and singing about meeting his connection. All hell pretty much breaks loose after that. “Venus in Furs” talks about “the whip, in love not given lightly”, and I have vivid memories of hearing “Run Run Run” for the first time and wincing when Reed’s guitar made that horrible screech after the second chorus. Two tracks later, there’s “Heroin”, after which nothing’s ever the same again.

Reed’s work with the Velvets – singing, playing lead guitar and writing all the songs – would be enough to earn him a place in history. Yet, after the band dissolved, he began a solo career which resulted in 22 studio albums. Neil Young aside, there isn’t another artist who, after leaving a seminal band, went on to have a career this productive and unpredictable. In 1972, he released Transformer, which spawned the unlikely hit “Walk on the Wild Side”. (David Bowie, who produced the album, said that Reed’s earlier work “gave [glam rockers] the environment in which to put our more theatrical vision”.) Three years later, he dropped Metal Machine Music, 64 minutes of vocal-less guitar feedback, on an unsuspecting public. Having lost a majority of his audience, Reed proceeded, over the next four decades, to reel them in and lose them again, with records ranging from the commercial (Mistral) to the personal (New York) to the far-out (the Edgar Allen Poe-inspired The Raven).

I want to be a singer like Lou Reed,” sang Frank Black of The Pixies. He wasn’t the only one – and yet, by conventional standards, Reed’s voice was singularly unimpressive. His delivery was flat, deadpan. When he got excited, he emitted the odd gurgle or yelp, but most of the time there was just this dry monotone. Luckily, Reed was the right singer for the kind of songs he wrote. It’s difficult to imagine his streetwise lyrics being ‘sung’ instead of narrated, as Reed would invariably do. The flatness of his tone also meant that the tiniest of inflections – the way he stretches the word ‘street’ in “There She Goes Again” – were magnified. And if his voice was a limited instrument, Reed’s guitar playing had boundless range and daring: hear his skittering runs on “European Son”, the gentle noodling on “Stephanie Says”, and the muscular stomp of his cover of Bob Dylan’s “Foot of Pride”. Even Hendrix didn’t do as much to legitimise noise in popular music.

Reed’s greatest legacy, though, was the way he broadened rock’s vocabulary. He wrote about shooting up and going down, gender confusion and S&M. The subject matter was sordid, but the tone was non-judgemental, reportorial. It was part-Genet, part-Burroughs; “gritty in the way New York streets were gritty,” as Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo put it. But Reed had a romantic side as well, searching for salvation in music (“Rock & Roll”), companionship (“Perfect Day”) and his city, New York (“Dirty Blvd.”).

Unlike Dylan, always at the forefront of whatever was breaking, Reed was usually ahead of the times. Three years after VU folded up, the New York Dolls took their down-and-dirty aesthetic and ran with it, paving the way for punk rock. Metal Machine Music was seen as an elaborate joke in 1975, but it’s easy to draw a line from it to the feedback arias of Sonic Youth and My Bloody Valentine. Reed was also one of the first songwriters to write frankly about gay and transgender subjects, making him a forerunner of glam rock. He remained unpredictable till the end – collaborating with Metallica, vigorously defending Kanye West’s Yeezus.

Though he was no actor, one of my favourite Reed moments is from a 1983 film called Get Crazy. Reed cameos as a version of himself, an ‘anti-social recluse... dropped by six record companies’. In one scene, he walks straight into traffic while trying to work out a lyric. This remains my abiding image of Reed – boldly striding forth, his music connected to the streets, ignoring the criticisms of passersby.

This piece appeared in The Indian Express.

The Good Road: DVD Review

If The Good Road lived up to its premise, who knows how it might have turned out? As it stands, India’s entry for the 2014 Oscars is an intriguing idea that’s executed, for the most part, only passably well. A young boy is separated from his parents while journeying through Kutch, and is picked up by a trucker duo carrying contraband. The manner in which this scenario is achieved is less than plausible. How likely is it that a mother and father might drive for several miles without realising their child isn’t in the car? 

Once young Aditya is with the truckers, the film splits into three narrative strands: the boy’s journey with his reluctant guardians; his parents’ (Ajay Gehi and Sonali Kulkarni) frantic search; and a third storyline about a young girl who’s trying to get from Bombay to her village, but who instead finds herself at a supremely creepy rural brothel. There’s no particular reason for this last story strand, except to introduce unnecessary contrasts between the well-adjusted city boy who, predictably, brings out protective instincts in the taciturn truckers, and the poor girl who can’t seem to get a break.   

The Good Road is dialogue-light, and Correa and his crew – cinematographer Amitabha Singh, sound designer Resul Pookutty – fill in the silences with a few moments of stark beauty. The director also has an eye for the idiosyncratic image – like a man perched on a milestone like a bird, smoking a beedi –which helps distract from the dullness of the script. I found myself thinking back to Mrinal Sen’s 1969 Bhuvan Shome, another city-meets village film set in Kutch. Sen’s film was as high-art as Correa’s, but it also had humour and pace; qualities The Good Road is sorely lacking in.

If The Good Road didn’t make a late-innings veer towards the sentimental, it might have ended up somewhat like the elliptical American road movies of the ’70s. Instead, abstractness and sentimentality collide in a dialogue exchange in the film’s final moments. “It’s a big country with many trucks and many highways”, one driver says. “Boss, I will never be able to forget this boy”, his partner replies. If it needs to be spelt out, the battle’s already lost. 

Thursday, October 31, 2013

MFF '13 picks

Blue is the Warmest Color
Abdellatif Kechiche’s Palme d’Or-winner gets into its character’s faces and under their skin. In a festival with several terrific female lead performances, Adèle Exarchopoulos stood out.

Paulina García is a blast as a 58-year-old divorcee navigating the singles scene in this film by Chilean director Sebastian Lelio.

Young and Beautiful
A sly, stylish and surprisingly funny look at a young Parisian who leads a double life as a call girl. Directed by Francois Ozon, who casts one of his regulars in a jaw-dropping (for cinpehiles) cameo.

The Selfish Giant
This film by British director Clio Barnard is about as depressing and intermittently transcendent as Ken Loach’s Kes.

Short Term 12
The sleeper hit of the festival, with Brie Larson and The Newsroom’s John Gallagher, Jr as supervisors at a foster care facility, and Kaitlyn Dever and Keith Stanfield as two particularly troubled teens.

Closed Curtain
Jafar Panahi follows This is Not a Film with another cinematic mind game that protest his house arrest and the filmmaking embargo imposed on him by the Iranian authorities. The dog in this film beats the cat in Inside Llewyn Davis as the most winning quadruped performer of the festival.

Before Midnight
The charm dissolves apace. If you were among those who hoped that Celine and Jesse got together after Before Sunset, their protracted fight here will make you wonder whether it was worth it. 

Monday, September 23, 2013

Kiss Kiss Bangs Bangs

Pauline Kael, Lester Bangs and the Twitter Age

One of the many curious changes social networking has wrought is that anybody with half a thought and a willingness to share it can now be a critic. This has led a majority of the critical establishment—people who write about the arts for a living—to adopt a tone that cannot be mistaken for that of a “normal” moviegoer, music listener, or book reader. This often results in critics distancing themselves from the movie/book/album at hand. Why risk sounding amateurish by reacting emotionally when one can tackle it coolly, intellectually?

Would Pauline Kael or Lester Bangs have deemed it necessary to change their approach in the era of Twitter? Neither of them was capable of writing anything that didn’t sound like a gut reaction. This isn’t to say their work wasn’t frequently, dazzlingly intelligent, just that they couldn’t bear to sound sterile and academic. Today, 31 years after Bangs’s death and 12 years after Kael’s, the level of passion and excitement the two of them brought to the task of reviewing is largely missing from the scene. One might admire Pitchfork‘s dedication to taste-making, but their cooler-than-thou writing could do with some Bangsian directness. And Kael, who was always on hand to take Bosley Crowther or Sight & Sound down a peg, would have surely raised the alarm on the sort of cozy consensus that exists between top film critics today.

* * *

In a 1970 review of the Stooges album Funhouse, Lester Bangs wrote: “I still hear a horde of sluggards out there whining: ‘Are you putting me on?’ Or, more fundamentally, haven’t the Stooges been putting us all on from Yelp One? And the answer, of course, is Yes. Because, as beautiful Pauline Kael put it in her characteristically epigrammatic way: ‘To be put on is to be put on the spot, put on the stage, made the stooge in a comedy act. People in the audience at Bonnie and Clyde are laughing, demonstrating that they’re not stooges—that they appreciate the joke—when they catch the first bullet right in the face’.”

This is the only proof I have that at least one of my two favourite critics was aware of the other’s existence. When I first read the piece around ten years ago, I was only familiar with Bangs, and wondered why he’d paused during such a magnificent rant of a review to quote another critic from a different field. What did “characteristically epigrammatic” mean anyway? And who was the beautiful Pauline Kael?

Pauline Kael was the film critic for the New Yorker from 1968 to 1991. She published her first review in City Lights exactly 50 years ago: Chaplin’sLimelight, which she called “Slimelight”. Before that, she did cinema-centric broadcasts for a Berkeley radio station, wrote detailed, opinionated program notes for a two-screen theatre there, and eventually started reviewing films for magazines like McCall’s and The New RepublicMcCall’spanicked after her merciless pan of The Sound of Music and fired her. In 1967, she wrote a lengthy rave for Bonnie and Clyde, which was published in the New Yorker. They hired her soon after, and she worked there until Parkinson’s and a growing disenchantment with the movie scene hastened her retirement.

Lester Bangs was a rock critic and editor of Creem. His first published review was in 1969, an angry letter to Rolling Stone. The magazine had run a review of the MC5’s Kick Out the Jams which Lester didn’t agree with. He responded with a submachine blast, which, to their credit, the magazine printed. Bangs started freelancing regularly for Rolling Stone after that, until editor Jann Wenner let him go four years later for being “disrespectful to musicians”. He moved to Creem, where he got the space and freedom to work out his feelings in rambling, quasi-stream-of-consciousness pieces. He died in 1982 of an accidental prescription drug overdose. In death, he’s been very alive, turning up in a R.E.M. number, getting name-dropped by Kurt Cobain, and being impersonated by Phillip Seymour Hoffman in Almost Famous.

* * *

I know that suggesting Kael and Bangs were similar birds might lead to ruffled feathers in both camps. After all, one of them was a straight-shooting, heart-on-her-sleeve writer who was born in Petaluma, California and later moved to New York, the other a straight-shooting, heart-on-his-sleeve writer who was born in Escondido, California and later moved to New York. There were, I concede, some differences. Kael did the majority of her writing in the rarified environs of the New Yorker, Bangs wrote for Rolling StoneCreemVillage Voice, and dozens of smaller, less distinguished zines and rags. She was a late bloomer, publishing her first piece at 34; he died at that age. He was way crazier than her; despite Kael’s claims to a “bohemian lifestyle” in her early years, it’s unlikely she ever ended up in a drunken shouting match with an artist she admired, like Bangs did more than once with Lou Reed. Apart from this, though, they were kindred spirits.

As mentioned at the start, the most evident link between the two is the straightforward, non-academic nature of their writing. Leave it to Andrew Sarris—or his musical counterpart, Robert Christgau—to lead the reader on an aphoristic dance. Neither Bangs nor Kael ever left you in any doubt of their feelings towards a particular record or movie. Though Kael’s writing was precise and beautifully constructed, and Bangs generally carried on like an offended windmill, both generated prose that strained and seethed and yodeled with passion. In a 2001 radio interview, Sarris took a dig at Kael, saying that she made it seem like filmmakers “weren’t just making bad movies, they were setting out to torture her.” He wasn’t wrong. Four years after she called Antonioni’s L’Avventura “easily the best film of the year”, here was Kael on his 1964 film Red Desert: “If I’ve got to be driven up a wall, I’d rather do it at my own pace, which is considerably faster than Antonioni’s.”

If Kael resembled a gunfighter out to avenge cinema, Bangs was more like Michael Douglas with his baseball bat in Falling Down. He cussed and called out musicians in his pieces, wrote openly about the machinations of corporate rock, and generally made life very difficult for himself and artists he wasn’t fond of. The Beatles were “dandelions in still air”, Bob Dylan’s Desire was “an exploitation record”. He championed anything that sounded maladjusted: The Rolling Stones, Iggy and the Stooges, skuzzy garage bands like the Troggs and the Godz, the Velvet Underground. His best pieces—“The White Noise Supremacists”, about racism in punk rock; the affectionate Jamaican travelogue “Innocents in Babylon”; the obituaries he wrote for John Lennon, Elvis Presley, and Peter Laughner—were messy, thrilling affairs, grasping for truths that most rock reviews never bothered with. He was part Burroughs, part Beat lit, part cough syrup-fueled madness—easily the most rock ‘n’ roll of rock ‘n’ roll writers. (His wildman persona aside, it’s worth noting that Bangs wrote with great insight about more contemplative albums, like Miles Davis’ In a Silent Way and Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours.)

Both were known for boiling things down to their basics. One of Kael’s books was titled Kiss Kiss Bang Bang—a distillation of cinema’s basic impulses and a pretty good indicator of her approach to the subject—while Bangs’s article on the skronk bands of the late ‘70s was simply called “A Reasonable Guide to Horrible Noise”. Their prose also shared a rhythmic quality, leaving one to wonder whether Kael ever wrote with music on in the background (references to music—from swing bands to rock ‘n’ roll—frequently appear in her reviews). Bangs, more given to self-mythologizing, described his own writing thus: “I feel I have a Sound aborning, which is my own, and that Sound if erratic is still my greatest pride, because I would rather write like a dancer shaking my ass to boogaloo inside my head, and perhaps reach only readers who like to use books to shake their asses, than to be or write for the man cloistered in a closet somewhere reading Aeschylus…” Kael, who liked to dance and who spent a good deal of her time railing against academic snobbery, would probably have concurred.

* * *

Perhaps it was because their reviews were often more entertaining than whatever it was they were reviewing, but Bangs and Kael were (and still are) treated with kid gloves by the more academically minded sections of the critical establishment. There’s more than a hint of jealousy in a lot of this, with rival critics citing populism and crowd-pleasing bombast as reasons for their popularity. Bangs certainly did not cultivate a reputation as an intellectual—addictions to alcohol and Romilar came in the way—but he was no lightweight; a 1979 piece of his daringly points to common ground shared by free jazz and punk rock, and his unbearably intense tribute to Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks—one of the great stand-alone pieces of rock criticism—ends with a juxtaposition of verses by Morrison and Garcia Lorca. Kael, who had neither addictions nor the indiscretions of youth to distract her by the time she started her career, was an even sharper critical mind. She was a keen observer not only of movies, but also the people who watched them; unlike most other critics, she regularly mentioned how the audience in the hall reacted to a particular film. Her “trash versus art” argument, a recurrent theme in her writing over the years, was provocative and influential. (“Technique,” she wrote, “is hardly worth talking about unless it’s used for something worth doing.”) And she was always on the lookout for new trends and hot young talent—hardly common practice for someone past the age of fifty.

It was in her reviews of the early 1970s that readers started encountering unknowns like Altman, Scorsese, Spielberg, De Palma, and Coppola. The same thing was happening in the music press, with Bangs writing about Patti Smith, the Ramones, the Sex Pistols, Television, and the Clash. The important thing to note is that, with New Hollywood and punk, Kael and Bangs weren’t riding a wave. They were there first, which is why their names will forever be associated with landmarks like Horses and Mean StreetsBlank Generation and The Godfather. Kael actually wrote a review of Robert Altman’s Nashville before it released, calling it “the funniest epic vision of America ever to reach the screen”. It was as if she’d been waiting for these films all her life. As for Bangs, he was a punk before punk existed. As he wrote in a 1977 piece about the Clash, “As far as I was concerned punk rock was something which had first raised its grimy snout around 1966 in groups like the Seeds and Count Five and was dead and buried after the Stooges broke up and the Dictators’ first LP bombed.”

* * *

There’s a parlour game that some music fans like to play. It’s called ‘What would Lester have said?’ Would he have liked the Hold Steady? (Yes.) Would he have offered to eliminate the members of Coldplay, like he did James Taylor? (No, but only because he’d have been in his fifties, too old for death threats.) Would he have kept a blog? (A definite yes, Lester’s style was made for blogging.) The same game happens less with Kael.

That her absence isn’t felt as keenly might stem from the fact that even after she retired, younger critics kept adopting aspects of her style; as a result, it still doesn’t feel like she’s truly exited the scene. Bangs, on the other hand, no one even tries to imitate. It’s too much work—put yourself on the line, fight with your editor, make enemies of the artists. There are no Lesters out there, which might account for the underwhelming nature of a lot of popular music criticism today.

One of the few writers with a healthy appreciation for both Kael and Bangs is Greil Marcus, a legendary rock critic in his own right. This is what he wrote after Kael’s death in 2001: “Her credo…brought countless readers, and countless people her readers talked to, argued with, scorned, laughed at, dragged into theaters to see movies they would never forget or never forgive, into the action.” He was even more emphatic in his forward to Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, the first collection of Bangs’s writings, published five years after his death. “Perhaps what this book demands from a reader is a willingness to accept that the best writer in America could write almost nothing but record reviews,” Marcus wrote. I think there’s a corollary to that statement. Maybe if one writes reviews like they’re the only things that matter, the way Pauline Kael and Lester Bangs did, then writing reviews is enough.

This piece appeared in PopMatters. You can see the piece as it appeared on their site here

Grand Masti: Review

Do you want to see Aftab Shivdasani and Vivek Oberoi in drag, kissing? Do you want to see Aftab Shivdasani and Vivek Oberoi at all? Do you find rape jokes funny? Do you consider Indra Kumar a master of the cinematic medium? If the answer to any of the above is yes, our advice is still as follows: avoid Grand Masti like it’s done you personal harm. Because if you do see it, you’ll feel like it has.

Shivdasani, Oberoi and Riteish Deshmukh play three husbands who, to put it plainly, aren’t getting any and are very upset about it. The obvious solution – obvious to screenwriters Milap Zaveri and Tushar Hiranandani, at any rate – is to send them off for a college reunion where they can take revenge on their wives for putting offspring, household and career before sex-on-demand. That’s about it for plot – what follows is less a story, more a series of demented, depraved ravings culminating in a scene where Pradeep Rawat’s character can only be saved from falling off a roof by his daughter, wife and sister stripping off and using their clothes to form a rope.

You have to wonder why Kumar is still being allowed to direct anything longer than a public service announcement. In the ’90s, he made some of the shrillest Hindi films ever (Dil, Ishq); lately, he seems to be trying hard to make the stupidest. Is fashioning the wreckage that is the collective career of Oberoi, Shivdasani and Deshmukh into a mountain of double entendre a fulfilling job? We might never know – though it’s interesting how much of Grand Masti’s humour revolves around castration. During the course of the film, various appendages are attacked by cats, pecked by crows, scalded by soup and chopped off by axes. In Freudian terms, maybe this is a manifestation of Kumar’s powerlessness, after two decades in the business, to make a decent film.

This review appeared in Time Out Delhi. 

Thursday, September 12, 2013

15 years of Satya

In the '90s, after the long reign of the Angry Young Man and a brief, intense flirtation with parallel cinema, Bollywood went back to being the valium of the masses. With one eye on the emerging NRI market, cinema became a delivery device for family values and nostalgic patriotism. Four of the 10 top-grossing films in 1998 were romantic comedies; three of these had the word ‘pyaar’ in their titles. The top earner was Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, which repackaged India as an Archie’s comic. (In second place was Bade Miya Chote Miya, which had half of KKHH’s earnings – and pretensions.) Soldier, Major Saab, Bandhan – tremendous wastes of celluloid all – were among the top ten that year.
It’s a wonder number 13 got noticed at all. Had Satya released today, it would have fit right in with the Twitter-happy ‘hindie’ crowd. Back then, however, this bastard child of Govind Nihalani and Martin Scorsese must have come as a rude shock to the Bollywood system (not least because it candidly dishes on the underworld-film industry nexus). 1998 was the year of monumental upheavals like the Pokhran blasts and Sachin’s twin innings at Sharjah. Satya was an event of similar import. Along with Dil Chahta Hai, it was to become the most influential Hindi film of the next 15 years. It is also the towering achievement in director Ram Gopal Varma’s conundrum of a career.
Whatever you might consider him now, RGV in those days used to be a filmmaker. Starting in 1989, he churned out – as he still does – a film a year. Some of his early experiments were fascinating; especially Siva, his debut, and the slick horror film Raat. In 1995, he made a huge splash with the sensual, freewheeling Rangeela. A year passed, then two. News trickled out that he was making a gangster film.
In a December 1997 article on, with Satya still to be released, Varma is quoted as saying “I want to portray stark reality, as Shekhar Kapur did in Bandit Queen.” Though Satya might appear to have more in common with films like Parinda, Deewar and Nayakan, this mention of Kapur’s 1994 film is significant. One could make the case that Varma took Bandit Queen’s (and Salaam Bombay’s) gritty storytelling style and expletive-heavy dialogue and ran with them as far as mainstream cinema would allow at the time. Three key roles in Satya went the way of Bandit Queen cast members: Manoj Bajpayee as Bhiku Mhatre, Govind Namdeo as Bhau Thakurdas Jhawle and Saurabh Shukla as Kallu Mama.
Kapur certainly thought of his film as a spiritual ancestor of Satya and the left-of-mainstream cinema it spawned. “Let’s put it this way,” he said in an interview, “if there was no Bandit Queen, there wouldn’t be Satya and if there wasn’t Satya, there wouldn’t be Anurag and Manoj.” It’s true that many people first heard of Anurag Kashyap after his screenplay for Varma’s film. Vishal Bhardwaj, Satya’s music composer, might well have been taking mental notes for his own directorial ventures. Actors like Makrand Deshpande and Sanjay Misra got their first major exposure with this. As for Bajpayee, his turn as Bhiku Mhatre, charismatic mid-level don and mentor to JD Chakravarthy’s sedate Satya, brought him a couple of years of stardom, before the industry stopped pretending it cared about character actors. (Interestingly, it was Satya alumnus Kashyap who gave Bajpayee’s career a second wind with last year’s Gangs of Wasseypur.)
In gangster film terms, Satya is more Goodfellas than Godfather, concerned with foot soldiers rather than generals. (Varma would later attempt a Godfather remake with the overrated Sarkar.) And like its illustrious forebears, Satya has gone on to redefine the organised crime genre in Indian film. Mhatre was a new kind of anti-hero, gleefully amoral, a Vijay Verma without a hard-luck story. The film’s simultaneously slick and gritty look is still being imitated – not least by Varma himself. Danny Boyle reportedly watched the film while prepping for Slumdog Millionaire; he also cast Saurabh Shukla as a cop with a very thuggish outlook. And, of course, every subsequent Hindi film about the Mumbai underworld, from Vaastav to Black Friday to Shootout at Lokhandwala, would be made in Satya’s shade. Varma himself revisited the genre; triumphantly in Company, and with diminishing returns in Shiva and D (which he produced).
Even after 15 years, Satya has dated very little. What has changed, however, is the perception of Varma as Indian cinema’s golden boy. Still, even his critics would do well to remember what Citizen Kane’s director Orson Welles said in response to a remark about Greta Garbo only being in a couple of good movies: “Well, you only need one.” Varma might not have fulfilled everyone’s expectations, but he made Satya, and Indian cinema will forever be indebted to him for this.

A slightly truncated version of this piece appeared in GQ's September issue.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Shuddh Desi Romance: Review

The first 15 minutes of Shuddh Desi Romance should be shown to aspiring screenwriters in the class on set-ups. En route to his wedding, handsome, hesitant lunk Raghu (Sushant Singh Rajput) finds himself falling for Gayatri (Parineeti Chopra), whose acquaintance he made a couple of hours ago. They get talking and, as often happens on long bus journeys, share a couple of awkward kisses. The next day, moments before the varndmala, he takes a bathroom break and disappears. The grace note, however, is what announces Jaideep Sahni as writer even before the credits roll. Upon learning that her fiancée has flown the coop, the bride-to-be sighs, sits down and orders a cold drink. 
Back home in Jaipur, Raghu runs into Gayatri again. Soon enough, sparks and clothes fly, and the two of them move in together, with Gayatri warning her lover not to take things too seriously. All is bliss, right until they decide, in a drunken dare of sorts, to get married. The subsequent twist can be spotted fairly easily, but all we’ll say is that it leaves a window open for Tara (Vaani Kapoor), Raghu’s ex-fiancée, to re-enter the film. Raghu, faced with two women who talk very fast and are way too smart for him, ends up comically paralyzed by indecision.
Sahni’s return (his last filmed screenplay was in 2009) has been eagerly anticipated – both by those who consider Khosla Ka Ghosla and Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year to be modern masterpieces, and by those who simply find his movies very entertaining. Shuddh Desi Romance, directed by Maneesh Sharma, subverts just about every Bollywood romantic trope you can think of, but even more audacious are the bombs Sahni sets off under the seat of middle-class morality. Everything from live-in relationships to passing judgment based on someone’s dating history is dragged out into the open, discussed and dismissed. Like David Dhawan is fond of saying, leave your beliefs at the door.
It’s hardly surprising that Chopra is a great fit with Sahni’s homespun, unsentimental dialogue (there’s no other actor we’d rather hear say “inquiriyaan”). What is less expected is how consistently Rajput, in his second film after Kai Po Che!, vies with her for the audience’s sympathies, even as his character keeps getting his dignity handed to him by two headstrong, independent women. Vaani Kapoor, in her first film, is almost as merciless as Chopra, which is saying something. And the other Kapoor, Rishi, is just fine as a stand-in for “old-fashioned views”.
Sharma and production designer TP Abid get a lot out of little details – a bottle of Romanov (not Smirnoff) in the kitchen, for instance, speaks to Gayatri’s outlook and financial situation. Sharma also uses the backdrop of Jaipur life in the same effective way he did Delhi in Band Baaja Baaraat. Unfortunately, like that film, Shuddh Desi Romance runs out of gas with about half an hour to go. Tara’s return, though welcome, is never convincing, her actions after returning even less so. It’s as if the film runs out of taboos to break, and ends up repeating the same ones. You can only shock all the people some of the time.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Ramadhir tells it like it is

The wisest ever dissection of India's relationship with the movies, courtesy Ramadhir Singh: "Sab saale sabke dimaag mein apni apni picture chal rahi hai, sab saale hero banna chah rahein apni picture mein. Ee saala Hindustan mein jab tak sanimaa hai, log chutiya bante rahenge."

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Satyagraha: Review

“All things equal, a bad message film is better than a bad entertainer.” Among the many unwritten rules governing movies in this country, this is the most unfortunate. It is this rule that’ll save Satyagraha from being called the worst film of 2013. Yet, in more ways than I care to recall, that is exactly what it is.

Like his last two films, Aarakshan and Chakravyuh, Prakash Jha’s latest has been snatched from the headlines, dressed up, dumbed down and served to the public without comment or insight. Satyagraha revisits the anti-corruption protests that shook, albeit briefly, the capital in 2011. Amitabh Bachchan plays the Anna Hazare stand-in, a schoolteacher and activist called Dwarka Anand, whose thwarted efforts to retrieve the compensation money promised to him by a scheming minister (Manoj Bajpayee) after his son’s death soon morphs into a public crusade against corruption. His painfully loyal followers include his dead son’s widow (Amrita Rao) and friend (Ajay Devgn), a reporter, Yasmin (Kareena Kapoor Khan), and a local tough, Arjun (Arjun Rampal).

You’d think that with the benefit of hindsight, Jha and his co-writers Anjum Rajabali and Rutvik Oza might have ventured a few educated guesses about the inner workings of the anti-corruption movement. Yet, all we get is a recreation – a trite, simplistic version of a story everybody already knows. Maybe Jha thought that the very sight of hunger strikes and lathi charges would be enough to win over the audience. But like Raanjhanaa before it this year, Satyagraha ends up looking like a parody of the real-life agitations it so solemnly restages.

The incongruities pile up faster than you can count. Yasmin is the only big-time reporter I know who’d pass on an interview with a prime minister to go cover a story about a schoolteacher rotting in some small-town jail. Devgn’s Manav starts the film as a rule-bending phone company CEO, but soon proves he’s just another whore with a heart of gold. To top it all, the film contrives to have Dwarka, in a weakened state from his hunger strike and being watched by thousands of people, suddenly go missing.

A few good performances would have gone a long way – as they did in Jha’s Raajneeti – but there are none to be had. Bachchan, repeating his cantankerous old man act from Aarakshan, manages to avoid both embarrassment and impact. The same cannot be said for Devgn, whose acting abilities have deteriorated alarmingly since the days of Zakhm and Company. Kapoor, Rampal and Rao come and go, as cricket commentators like to say, without troubling the scorers. Only Bajpayee manages to have some fun with his hissing, bandgala-wearing villain.

Jha has become the Indian Stanley Kramer, seemingly unable to resist the higher calling of the message film. At least the director of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and Inherit the Wind made It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Is there a silly, logic-defying comedy in Jha as well? Or has he already made one with Satyagraha?

This review appeared in Time Out.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

10 questions after Basu Bhattacharya's Anubhav

  1. Wouldn’t it have been fun if Amitabh Bachchan had played Shashi?
  2. Does Sanjeev Kumar begin to lose it at the end because he realises he’s being out-acted by Tanuja?
  3. Why don't we come up with more screenplays like this, in which adults get to act like adults?
  4. Don’t you just hate it when the only thing people can say about a film they like is “Oh, it has great songs”? 
  5. Did Nando Bhattacharya photograph anything else of note?
  6. Why is the sound sync so badly off?
  7. A homegrown reply to the new wave(s) of the 60s? (Read a related post by Jai Arjun Singh here)
  8. Could anything possibly be less appetising than Hangal giving Sanjeev Kumar a butt massage?
  9. “Mujhe Jaan Na Karo Meri Jaan” – best ever song shot on a balcony? Followed by “Door Kahin Jab Din Dhal Jaaye”?
  10. Did Vittorio De Sica’s Sunflower actually play in Bombay?

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Long Goodbye

Whoever thought of getting Leigh Brackett to write The Long Goodbye (she was attached to the project before director Robert Altman) must have been hoping for a repeat of the screwball hi-jinks of The Big Sleep. Brackett had written the screenplay for Howard Hawks’ 1949 classic, which – like The Long Goodbye – was based on a Raymond Chandler detective novel. Yet, while Altman and Hawks saw the funny side of Chandler and his self-defeating but very quotable private eye Phillip Marlowe, the two films are very different in tone. The Big Sleep is the funniest of film noirs, The Long Goodbye a hip, melancholy shaggy dog story.

Elliot Gould, a graceful, shambolic presence in American fringe cinema of the ‘70s, plays Marlowe, a role immortalised by Humphrey Bogart in Hawks’ film. The plot is the usual Chandlerian yarn about Marlowe getting a case, poking his nose where it doesn’t belong, getting beaten up for his trouble, and still persisting. Altman takes this structure and, quite lovingly, satirises it. The Chandler novels and the earlier film adaptations were set in the 1940s, an era when the idea of a private eye as a modern-day knight was tenable, if not quite believable. But in 1970s, which is when Altaman’s film is set, Marlowe is an anachronism, and a bit of a joke. You can see it in the ruefulness that lurks behind Gould’s wisecracks.

Altman, as he so often does, scatters classic moments about casually – like the sequence when Gould is trying to fool his cat into thinking his favourite brand of pet food is being served. Sterling Hayden, drunk, bearded and imposing at six feet five inches, plays a Hemmingway-esque author. There’s a cameo by one Ken Sansom, rightly disappointed when his Walter Brennan impression isn’t appreciated. And audiences today will recognise a muscle-bound individual who turns up as an uncredited henchman for a few seconds. Who’d have thought, 30 years later, that this man would be governor of California and Gould would be known only as Ross and Monica’s dad from Friends? It’s an irony Marlowe would have appreciated.