Monday, February 24, 2014

An oblique boo: Treasures from the Films Division vault

An expanded version of a piece I did for The Indian Quarterly. 

In America, they filmed a platinum blonde movie star singing “Happy Birthday” to the president. The British recorded for posterity the few seconds for which Charlie Chaplin and Mahatma Gandhi appeared on a balcony together. Yet somehow, in India, we have scant footage of the moment our country became independent. There’s a video fragment of Nehru’s “Tryst with Destiny” speech, but it’s so blurry that one might as well be watching a completely different night. It’s quite possible that a clearer video might have been captured if the government’s newsreel and documentary unit, Information Films of India, had not been dissolved in 1946. Its post-independence avatar, Films Division, would only come into being in 1948.

Films Division was created to facilitate “the production and distribution of newsreels and short films required by the Government of India for public information, education, motivation, and for instructional and cultural purposes”. Which sounds terribly official and boring, but FD found a way to insert itself into the lives of Indian moviegoers. The Cinematograph Act of 1952 made it compulsory for all cinema halls in the country to screen an FD short before any feature film. Camille Deprez writes of how, even in its initial years, FD’s films were reaching a weekly paying audience of 20 million viewers. This, she says, “marked India as unique compared to anywhere else in the world”.

There’s no denying that many of these films – and there were more than a hundred new ones every year – were “boring, heavy-handed and disenchanted”, as Srirupa Roy bluntly put it. Yet, through guile or official oversight or sheer brazenness, a couple of them rose above their intended function as delivery devices for information and propaganda. Some were, dare it be said, worthier of attention than the classic Bollywood flicks they prefaced. I Am 20 more than holds its own against Jewel Thief. And there’s more restless energy packed into five minutes of Abid than the entire four hours of Mera Naam Joker.

Since its formation, Films Division has produced over 8,000 documentaries, animations and shorts. Last year, in an unexpected but welcome move, the organisation started separating some grain from six-and-a-half decades of chaff. In January, it launched a YouTube channel and began to upload some of the Division’s more notable efforts on it. The channel now has 170 videos, ranging from feature-length documentaries to minute-long experimental films. (Other users have uploaded FD films on YouTube as well.) Though the majority of directors featured on it will probably be unknown to the casual viewer, if you’re lucky, you’ll come for Satyajit Ray and end up staying for Pramod Pati. 

The 1950s shorts uploaded are interesting in an academic sense, but do not suggest that Indian documentarians were pushing – or were being allowed to push – the boundaries of their craft at the time. There’s the odd impressionistic venture, like V Shantaram’s Symphony of Life (1954), a ten-minute meditation on nature and tribal life that’s unique for having no narration and synching its editing to music. Still, it wasn’t till the ‘60s that Films Division directors started, in the words of critic Bikram Singh, to “stick the neck out (and) say an oblique ‘boo’ to the establishment”.

The Man Who Made Short Films
Seventeen years after Jean Rouch quizzed young Parisians for his documentary Chronicle of a Summer, filmmaker SNS Sastry trained his camera on a group of 20-year-olds born on August 15, 1947. I Am 20 asked socialites and farmers, factory workers and IAS aspirants about themselves, their lives and their country. Instead of the happy slice of patriotism officials might have been led to expect, there’s a good deal of candour in their responses, and in some cases, doubt and disillusionment. When asked what comes to mind when she thinks of her country, a young woman replies: “I think of India when I see the long queues, people waiting patiently for buses, for ration.” And the declaration by another respondent – which Sastry mischievously places after the patriotic pronouncements of a fighter pilot – that he doesn’t have “any love for the country” is so un-Indian in its matter-of-factness, it prompts a surprised “Really?” from the interviewer.

I Am 20 is political filmmaking, but of a very fleet-footed sort. Sastry’s droll juxtapositions comment on the action without going the full Potemkin: one particularly memorable cut takes viewers from sitar music and stone carvings to shots of factories and a guy singing “I Should Have Known Better”. There’s little of the solemnity one would expect from an exercise of this kind. For starters, Sastry keeps distracting viewers with violently shaking backdrops. He also allows his respondents to take jabs at sacred institutions, like the young man who insists that his ambition is to join the IAS and become “a cog in the machine”. There’s even a dig at Films Division, when the same kid deadpans that India has made the “kind of progress which you show in your documentary films”.

Almost as if he’d been asked “And what do you do?” by one of his subjects, Sastry proceeded to turn the camera on himself. And I Make Short Films (1968) packs a feature film worth of material into 17 minutes. Images of musicians, rioters, lovers, animals replace one another at lightning speed, the soundtrack fading in and out like someone switching between a dozen different radio stations. There’s no narration, no plot, no safety net. Sastry takes particular delight in dancing around the issue of the documentary’s ultimate purpose. “We are filmmakers”, a voice says. “We are sociologists”, another argues. Even in this very personal exercise, there are political undertones. As an off-screen voice praises the government’s Five Year Plans, the accompanying images are of starving villagers and dry crusts of bread.

In the late 1950s, Pramod Pati went to Prague to study puppet animation. One of his instructors there was Jiří Trnka, whose 1965 film The Hand was a chilling indictment of Soviet censorship. Pati’s approach was clearly informed by Trnka’s, but where the Czech animator’s brand of subversion was sombre and measured, Pati’s was freewheeling and joyous. His 1968 short Explorer might be the most bizarre seven minutes ever committed to film by an Indian director, populated as it is with images of saints and statues and dancing teenagers, billboards that read ‘F*CK CENSORSHIP’, mushroom clouds, and dozens upon dozens of eyes.

Pati joined Films Division in 1959 as the head of its animation unit. In a celebrated 1970 short, he applied a stop motion animation technique called pixilation to a live subject, the Bombay artist Abid Surti. Abid is a rare home-grown example of the psychedelic ‘head’ film, full of pop colours and Surti’s magnificent poker face. In a later interview, the artist recalled how Pati landed up at his studio after the original subject, MF Husain, had dropped out. “[He] was a giant of a worker, very cooperative, very understanding, and very loving,” Surti recalled. “He used to work, I should say, about 19-20 hours a day while we were shooting it.” The 20-day shoot became an event in itself, with Satyajit Ray and BR Chopra dropping in.

God in the Details
While Sastry and Pati were linked by their avant-garde tendencies, the third great director of the fertile ‘65-‘75 period, S Sukhdev, walked a path very much his own. His India ‘67 (actual title: An Indian Day) is probably the best-known work to emerge from Films Division. The film was in the running for the Golden Bear at the ’68 Berlin Film Festival. American critic Albert Johnson spoke of its “highly cinematic perusal of the contrasts and contradictions in India” and called the director the “most exciting film master, since the rise of Satyajit Ray”. Ray himself has written in praise of the film, saying “I like it, but not for its broad and percussive contrasts of poverty and influence, beauty and squalor, modernity and primitivity – however well shot and cut they might be. I like it for its details – for the black beetle that crawls along the hot sand, for the street dog that pees on the parked bicycle, for the bead of perspiration that dangles on the nose tip of the begrimed musician.”

To gather footage for this hour-long documentary, Sukhdev travelled across the country, shooting everything from an artists’ village in Cholamandal to a Shiv Sena agitation in Bombay led by Bal Thackeray. Though the film was commissioned to celebrate 20 years of independence, Sukhdev proved as adept as Sastry at avoiding unnecessary chest-beating. Shots of Gandhi Samadhi, for instance, are combined with the recollections of an old flower-seller who talks about bringing her boy to the Mahatma’s funeral. This is one of the few scenes where there’s something resembling narration. Most of the time, the viewer is given the freedom to form his or her own story out of Sukhdev’s contemplative images. Fittingly, Gulzar’s tribute to Sukhdev, Ek Akar (1985), was also sans narration.

Sukhdev directed, shot and edited the film himself – a remarkable feat. He even turns up onscreen in a homecoming scene that ends with him looking around his old room and picking up a pillow embroidered with the words ‘sweet dream’. The little details that impressed Ray so are everywhere: a sketch of the goddess Lakshmi on a shopping bag; a bagpiper at a wedding; couples close-dancing to “Hava Nagila”. Often the details turn darker, like the protest notice that reads ‘Hitler Reborn at Pathankote’ or the image of flies buzzing around the skulls of dead cattle (the latter anticipates the close-ups of human corpses in his 1975 film about the Bangladesh War, Nine Months to Freedom). Sukhdev’s subversion is less gleeful than Sastry’s or Pati’s, but just as effective: it’s no coincidence that the village teacher is trying to get his students to use kranti (revolution) in a sentence.

A Common Tune
The one element that unites these diverse films is the music of Vijay Raghav Rao. Rao was an extraordinarily versatile talent. An in-demand flautist, composer and arranger, he conducted the national anthem at the 1947 Independence Day celebrations. He performed for Gandhi in person and for Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi. When Led Zeppelin recorded with local musicians in Bombay, it was Rao who interpreted for them. He was awarded the Padma Shri in 1970.

Rao was to FD’s directors what Vanraj Bhatia was to the parallel filmmakers of the ‘70s and ‘80s: a composer malleable enough to handle a wide range of styles and temperaments. He matched the schizophrenic charge of Pati’s Explorer with impressionistic bursts of sound – instruments (sitar, ghatam, clarinet, drums, sarangi, harmonica, strings) sped up and distorted, combined and contrasted. For MF Husain’s Through the Eyes of a Painter, he provided groovy backwards sitar, a year after the Beatles did the same with guitars on Revolver. I Am 20 opens with a lightning-fast taan, followed by percussion that mimics the rhythm of a train. If that sounds familiar, it’s because Rao used it again the following year, in his soundtrack for Mrinal Sen’s seminal 1969 feature Bhuvan Shome.  

Rao could, of course, come up with more traditionally structured pieces when required. India ’67, for instance, has a number of sustained compositions in an array of folk and classical styles. Still, it’s remarkable how a trained classical musician like Rao was willing to put his ego aside and contribute music that often served the interests of the film more than his own reputation. Did purists look down on his score for Trip – a series of electronic blips – or his inventive use of birdsong and ticking clocks in Abid? Even if they had, it probably wouldn’t have bothered Rao much. “I would like to remove a misunderstanding that documentary film music consists of only old type classical music,” he said in an interview. Abid Surti, meanwhile, echoed everyone’s feelings when he called Rao “the king of music at that time at Films Division” in a 2005 interview.

Maps and Legends
One of the pleasures of FD’s YouTube channel is the opportunity it affords to make your own little discoveries. For every proponent of Sastry or Sukhdev, there’ll be another who finds the elegant shorts of Vijay B Chandra more revelatory. There are also a number of hard-to-find films by big-ticket directors, like Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s Past in Perspective (1975), Girish Karnad’s Kanaka Purandara (1989) and Shyam Benegal’s Indian Youth: An Exploration (1968). Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s Oscar-nominated An Encounter with Faces (1978) – a moving look at children’s homes in Bombay – is an essential entry in the Indian documentary canon, as are Mani Kaul’s Arrival (1980) and Dhrupad (1983). Satyajit Ray’s shadow is cast over four films: two by him (Rabindranath Tagore, 1961; The Inner Eye, 1972), and two – by BD Garga and Shyam Benegal – about him. (Benegal’s documentary has the added attraction of Govind Nihalani as cameraman and Smita Patil and Om Puri behaving like excited schoolkids in the master’s presence.)

Then there are the one-offs; films made by professionals from other fields. City on the Water (1975), by architect Charles Correa, is a melancholy tribute to 70s Bombay. Koodal (1968) is painter Tyeb Mehta’s devastating indictment of animal slaughter. Graceful panning shots give way to quick-fire images of fornicating cattle, followed by meat hooks hanging from the ceiling. The squeamish should be grateful that Mehta doesn’t go as far as George Franju in his 1949 slaughterhouse documentary Blood of the Beasts; instead, he ends with a montage of religious idols, the last image being that of Nandi the bull. Equally experimental, if less coherent, is a 1967 short by Mehta’s Bombay Progressive Group cohort MF Husain. Through the Eyes of a Painter begins with Husain explaining what a daring thing it is that he’s doing, making a 15-minute film with no narration and no identifiable link between images of daily life in Rajasthan. Evidently, the Berlin Film Festival thought it was pretty daring too, because they awarded Husain the Golden Bear for Best Short Film.

Even if you see all this, there’s a lot left. I haven’t even touched upon FD’s pioneering animated films, their biopics on forgotten legends like Sohrab Modi and Gangubai Hangal, the time capsules announcing everything from the formation of Nagaland to how happy the nation is under Emergency. It’s amazing how so many of these films, despite the restrictions placed on them, still pulse with a vitality denied to all but the best of Indian feature cinema. In I Am 20, a young man talks about wanting to “go through this country top to bottom, walking at a leisurely pace, seeing all kinds of people”. One could achieve something similar by watching these films.

All images, moving and still, used above are the property of Films Division. 

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Highway: Review

Days before her wedding, Veera (Alia Bhatt) talks her fiancée into taking her for a night-time drive. She wants to leave the city behind, hit the highway. That wish is granted in the most dramatic way possible when she finds herself in the middle of a robbery in progress and, moments later, being held at gunpoint. She’s whisked away in a car, a rag stuffed in her mouth. When she resists, she’s slapped around by Mahabir (Randeep Hooda). After they realise she’s the lone daughter in a rich family – in short, pay dirt – they dump her in the back of a truck and take off.

For the first 40 minutes, there’s nothing to suggest that this film had been made by Imtiaz Ali, one of Indian cinema’s few unironic romantics. Then, all of a sudden, the tension eases. The morning after a botched escape attempt, Veera emerges, seemingly at peace with her predicament. Soon, she’s taking in the sights, chatting with the more forthcoming kidnappers, and trying to draw out the taciturn Mahabir. All the while in the background, we see via Anil Mehta’s camera an India that’s picturesque but not touristy. This is a real road movie, not a pretend one like Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara or Ali’s own breakthrough film Jab We Met

Another thing that’s changed since Jab We Met. There may have been people who found Kareena Kapoor’s incessant jabbering in that film endearing, but I wasn’t one of them. In Highway, Ali keeps the chatter down to a minimum. Much of the film is spent watching the characters move quietly from town to town, with AR Rahman’s score filling in the silences. A less romantic filmmaker might have kept cutting between the rescue efforts and the couple on the lam, but Ali is more interested in the developing relationship between Veera and Mahabir. For a brief while, they’re in their own little world, trying to outrun their memories, delaying the inevitable.

Bhatt, only one film old, bravely pushes at her limitations. The protectiveness she shows towards her character is touching, and the long, uninterrupted scene where Veera reveals her traumatic past is not only handled beautifully, it also goes some way towards making sense of the idea that this broken, headstrong girl might actually be happier with a bunch of criminals than in her own stifling home. Hooda hasn’t had a worthwhile role in a while, and though the film does attempt to turn Mahabir into Mr Sensitive New Age Kidnapper, there are moments when his glowering and growling are reminiscent of Toshiro Mifune's wilder gnashings. Grounding the whole enterprise are the ungainly, authentic faces in small parts, expertly assembled by casting director Mukesh Chhabra.

The greatest gains, however, are Ali’s. He seems to have understood the virtue of underselling a scene, and the spare, earthy tone he adopts here is perfectly matched to the material. After the unbearable indulgence of Rockstar, this film is like a splash of cold spring water. Highway is Imtiaz Ali showing us why he might actually belong at the cool kids’ table.

This review appeared in Time Out Delhi.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Outside bet

In A Decade Under the Influence, a documentary on American cinema in the 1970s, Bruce Dern reminisces about how he and fellow-actors like Jack Nicholson had to compete with Brando, McQueen and Newman for parts. “It wasn’t about catching anybody, it was just being allowed to audition for the roles they got,” he says. “Why should they have a corner on the market? Yeah, we don’t look like they do, we’re not handsome like they are” – and here Dern’s voice turns menacing – “but we’re fucking interesting.”

In the first 18 years of his career, Matthew McConaughey was, for the most part, an anti-Dern; on the inside, barely glancing out. He looked like a movie star, he talked, stood, smiled like one. This, combined with his easy, non-threatening onscreen manner, landed him in one of Hollywood’s more lucrative traps – romantic comedy leading man. He did Failure to Launch (2006) and Fool’s Gold (2008) and a half-dozen indistinguishable others. His credibility dropped steadily, to the extent that Matt Damon impersonating him on Letterman seemed more interesting than his films. But then, almost overnight, he became interesting.

McConaughey had a bright start to his career, with a walk-on part to die for as ex-jock David Wooderson in Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused (“That’s what I love about these high school girls, man. I get older, they stay the same age”). He was one of the outfielders in Angels in the Outfield, an attorney who defends a black man on murder charges in A Time to Kill, and a lawyer again in Spielberg’s Amistad. But he wasn’t particularly interesting in big-budget films like U-571 and Contact, and in 2001, he headlined his first romantic comedy, The Wedding Planner, co-starring Jennifer Lopez. When he looked up, ten years has passed and the world had lost interest.

It’s difficult to pinpoint when the movie star mutated into the actor. It was definitely post-2011, the year he stopped with the romances, starred in the serviceable courtroom drama The Lincoln Lawyer and provided droll support as the district attorney in the black comedy Bernie. (McConaughey has a thing for playing lawyers.) The following year, in Jeff Nichols’ Mud, he played a mysterious man on a desert island who’s discovered and assisted by two boys. It was a terrific film, and a blindingly good lead turn, equal parts braggadocio and and desperation. He then scared the crap out of whoever saw William Friedkin’s extremely twisted Killer Joe, in which he was a sort of vengeful angel. To top things off, he ran away with Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike, playing a male strip club impresario complete with bongos and black thong.

2013 was even better. A key cameo was sent his way by a director who likely has Daniel Day-Lewis and Robert De Niro on speed dial. Yet there he was, doing blow and thumping his chest in Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street. He also played Ron Woodroof, a rodeo rat who contracts AIDS in the early days of the disease and becomes an illegal dealer of HIV-combating drugs, in Dallas Buyers Club. McConaughey lost 50 pounds for the role, and agreed to sport a silly moustache. He looked like a cross between a vampire and Harry Dean Stanton. No one would think of casting Ron Woodroof in a romantic comedy. But it did win McConaughey a Golden Globe for Best Actor.

It seems fair to say that the last vestiges of vanity have been ironed out of McConaughey’s system. But now that he’s wrenched back the spotlight, will he lose his nerve? He’ll be getting the Clooney-Pitt offers now: Christopher Nolan has already cast him in next film, Interstellar. Still, McConaughey’s next project – the HBO series True Detective, which reunites him with his EDtv co-star Woody Harrelson – suggests that he’s determined to go on placing outside bets until he’s out of chips. Granted TV is no longer movie jail, but it’s still unheard of for a leading Hollywood star to do small screen work if he’s still got a film career.

Another thing that’s almost unheard of is for an actor with an established persona to turn his career around so dramatically in his forties.  The only comparable example I can think of is that of Humphrey Bogart, who’d been in pictures since 1928, but only shook off his image as a Warners heavy with The Maltese Falcon and High Sierra in 1941, when he was 42 years old. McConaughey is 44 today. It’s tough not to think back fondly on the first time people noticed him, walking into a bar in pink hot pants in Dazed and Confused, looking around the room as if he owned it, Bob Dylan pronouncing him champion of the world.

Addendum: McConaughey just won the Best Actor Oscar. And gave a very perplexing speech.

Wrote this for GQ. Should be up on their site any day now.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Tramp turns 100

On February 7, 1914, along with an educational short called Olives and their Oil, a six-minute comedy called Kid Auto Races at Venice played for the first time in theatres. The film bore the imprint of Keystone Studios, known for its manic comic shorts. It featured a strangely attired man interrupting the filming of a motor race by repeatedly walking in front of the camera. In those days, Keystone films had no credits, which meant there was no way of knowing the lead actor’s name. Still, after a few weeks, the studio started getting letters asking for more of that tramp fellow. Years later, some enterprising soul added this legend to a bootleg print of Kid Auto Races: “The first film in which Chaplin appeared in his world-famous costume”.

Kid Auto Races wasn’t the first Chaplin film to play in theatres – Making a Living released on February 2. Nor was it the moment when the Tramp was born. That happy accident happened during the shooting of Mabel’s Strange Predicament, which opened two days after Kid Auto Races. Asked by Keystone head Mack Sennett to put on any costume he could find, Chaplin opted for a shabby-looking coat, loose-fitting trousers, a bowler hat and a cane. “I wanted everything to be a contradiction: the pants baggy, the coat tight, the hat small and the shoes large,” he later wrote. Unsure what age he was supposed to be playing, he added a small moustache. The affinity he felt for the character was immediate. As Chaplin recalled, “By the time I walked onto stage, he was fully born.”

Mabel's Strange Predicament
‘Fully born’ may be overstating the case, but it’s worth noting how much of the familiar Tramp persona is visible in those two early films. The shuffling walk, the twirling of the cane, the habit of looking dead into the camera, as if willing the audience to read his thoughts – these habits would stay with Chaplin till the end. It’s also fascinating to note the little tics he ironed out. In his early appearances, the Tramp is somewhat aggressive and louche. Chaplin would replace this belligerence with body language more suited to his five-foot-four frame. The broad grin would make way for a tight-lipped smile. The moustache grew thinner, the movements more frantic. Tiny adjustments – shrugs and simpers, little bits with the hat and shoulders and eyebrows – were made from film to film. The Tramp was being assembled.

Very soon, the parts were in place. The rest is history. The Tramp conquered Hollywood, first in sublime shorts like Dough and Dynamite, The Floorwalker, One A.M and The Immigrant, and later in the classic series of features that began with The Kid and ended with The Great Dictator. Chaplin, who began directing his own films in 1914, realised that comedy might be made more compelling if it were layered with emotions like grief, loss and love. Like Alfred Hitchcock, that other great British import to Hollywood, Chaplin began working his childhood traumas into his films: Easy Street was informed by the tough London neighbourhood he’d grown up in, while the memory of being sent to a workhouse after his mother’s nervous breakdown was referenced in both The Kid and Modern Times. The Russian director Sergei Eisenstein once wrote that Chaplin was able to “see things most terrible, most pitiful, most tragic through the eyes of a laughing child”. While Hitchcock seemed determined to scare the world as he’d once been scared, Chaplin Charlie turned the cinema into a child’s search for reason and beauty. The result was near-universal acclaim. He was loved by the man on the street, by his Hollywood contemporaries, by Nureyev, Picasso, Churchill and Einstein.

Seen simply as an actor’s creation, the Tramp is without parallel. His personality is as rooted in movement as it is in appearance. If someone skidding around a corner or making a hat jump reminds you of the Tramp, it’s because Chaplin reinforced these movements film after film until they became unique to him. In a 1949 article called “Comedy’s Greatest Era”, film critic James Agee stated that the finest silent comedians “combined several of the more difficult accomplishments of the acrobat, the dancer, the clown and the mime”. Chaplin’s greatness lay in his ability to bring all these elements into play almost at once. Look at the scene in Modern Times where he’s a waiter trying to get an order to a customer. Every time he gets near, he’s swept away by a crowd of dancers, yet he still manages to keep the tray aloft. It’s as perfect a display of timing, grace, athleticism and comic clarity as you’ll ever see.

The Gold Rush
Agee wasn’t alone in feeling that no dancer or actor ever bettered Chaplin for “eloquence, variety and poignancy of motion”. In The Gold Rush, Chaplin plays a scene in a giant chicken costume. No Method actor could have conveyed as accurately – or hilariously – the panicked thoughts of a flightless bird facing a loaded gun. Chaplin could also be a startling dramatic actor when the situation demanded. One sees this side of him in the scene where Jackie Coogan is being hauled away by the state in The Kid, and at the end of City Lights, when his face registers the dawning and fading of hope with heartbreaking subtlety. Few actors have been as imitated: aspects of Chaplin’s style can be seen in performers as diverse as Jacques Tati, Jackie Chan, Marcel Marceau and Johnny Depp.

As Chaplin’s art progressed, the Tramp came to represent an evolving set of values. Some things remained constant: he was always enterprising, industrious, inventive; occasionally mischievous, but never malicious. From the beginning, he was a stand-in for the little guy; that’s why he’s forever kicking policemen and challenging bullies. The 1915 short The Tramp suggested for the first time that he might be an unlucky romantic. In Easy Street and The Immigrant, he identified more strongly with the downtrodden. He was assumed to represent communism in Modern Times, pacifism in The Great Director. Perhaps it was this constantly increasing metaphorical weight and its attendant difficulties, rather than the advent of talkies, which finally moved Chaplin to retire his alter ego. Yet, the Tramp lived on, past the intrusions of sound and colour, the fading away of other silent cinema icons and his creator’s death in 1977.

City Lights
Repertories across the world are planning screenings of Kid Auto Races on February 7. If the idea of celebrating the centenary of a short, mildly funny film seems excessive, I’d urge you to try and picture a Tramp-less world. For starters, it would be missing three or four of the greatest movies and a dozen or so of the most sublime shorts ever made. Slapstick and drama would still be kept apart. Walt Disney might never have found the inspiration for Mickey Mouse. Raj Kapoor would have had to come up with some other visual shorthand for enterprising playfulness in Shree 420. Buster Keaton would have been lonely at the top. For these and a hundred other reasons, allow Chaplinites their moment of sentiment. If the spirit moves you, you might even take out six minutes, go online and watch the film yourself.

Wrote this for The Sunday Guardian. You can see their very fetching layout here.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Mud: DVD Review

Though it was in competition for the 2012 Palme d’Or, Jeff Nichols’ Mud opened in theatres almost a year later. Once there, it garnered a couple of critical nods and faded away without much fuss. Don’t believe the (lack of) hype. Funny, dark and wise, Mud is a terrific film about the importance and danger of hero worship.

The film begins in earnest with the singular image of two young boys, Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), gazing awe­struck at a boat stranded in a tree on a desert island. When they discover fresh supplies stashed inside, they realise there’s someone living there. That someone turns out to be a mysterious drifter who goes by the name of Mud. He treats the boys like grown-ups, confiding in them, admitting that he’s on the run for killing a man. As Ellis’ parents start out on the road to separation, Mud becomes a compelling – if somewhat inap­propriate – father figure for the young boy.

Matthew McConaughey plays Mud as a mixture of smarts and bad judgment. He’s charismatic enough to get the boys looking out for him, fetching food and supplies and keeping him informed. But he cannot get himself to accept the fact that his semi-girlfriend Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), the reason behind his camping out on the island, might not be willing to go out on a similar limb for him. Perhaps he’s gotten so used to spinning tall tales that he’s accepted his own idealised love story.

This is the third in a series of lively, dark films set in the Ameri­can South that Nichols has made. The earlier two, Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter, had starred Nichols' weirdo muse Michael Shannon. Shannon turns up here as well, a comic cameo in a film that makes great use of its supporting players. Ray McKinnon and Sarah Paulson are very moving as Ellis’ parents, while Sam Shepard plays Mud’s grizzled mentor (filial relationships, involving both fathers and father figures, are at the heart of this film). The two boys are ornery and believable. McConaughey’s purple patch began here. Witherspoon alone seems to drift through the film without purpose or conviction.

The sentimental conclusion does seem at odds with the men­acing mood of the rest of the film. Yet, perhaps this was inevitable in a film founded on grand gestures like a shipwrecked man search­ing for salvation, a father trying to avenge his son, a young boy looking for someone to trust. Mud isn’t so much inspired by Aguirre, the Wrath of God, Great Expecta­tions or The Night of the Hunter as it is haunted by their ghosts. In a conversation with SundanceNOW, Nichols added Martin Ritt’s clas­sic Hud and Turner Browne’s photo book The Last River: Life Along Arkansas’s Lower White to the list of influences. Take our word for it: Mud could easily go 12 rounds with Hud.

This review appeared in Time Out Delhi.