Friday, December 25, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens: Review

What must today’s youngsters make of Star Wars? The original 1977 film helped create the concept of the tent-pole release, an entity extending from theatres to toy stores. Now, there’s a tent-pole every fortnight. Will they come out of The Force Awakens ready to go back in again, like their parents did all those years ago? Or will they go home and set a date with the next X-Men movie? Is Star Wars just one franchise among many, or is there something that sets it apart?

Director J.J. Abrams seems anxious to impress upon movie-goers that Star Wars (the original trilogy, at least) was no ordinary series. Rarely have we been sold as hard on a myth as in the first act of The Force Awakens. Some 30 years have passed since the events of Return Of The Jedi. Our heroes have scattered: Han Solo (Harrison Ford) is off doing disreputable business deals; Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), now General Organa, is leading the Resistance; and Luke… well, no one knows where Luke is. For Rey (Daisy Ridley), a suspiciously gifted scavenger, and Finn (John Boyega), a Stormtrooper who has a change of heart, the Force and the Jedi are urban legends. Abrams makes them audience surrogates: they must be given a reason to believe.

The build-up is probably the most pleasurable part of the film. With every familiar sighting—the Millennium Falcon! Luke’s lightsaber!—the heart jumps, and, with it, John Williams’ score. Some things never change: The plot still turns on a little beeping droid (this one’s called BB-8) delivering a galaxy-saving message; sons are still avenging, or taking revenge on, their fathers; and best of all, they still insist on making ever more powerful Death Stars which can be destroyed with one well-aimed missile.

Abrams achieved something rare with his 2009 Star Trek reboot, which managed to satisfy picky older fans while bringing a new audience into the fold. I suspect the same will happen here; Abrams has a Spielbergian knack of making the narrative zip along, Oscar Isaac is surprisingly convincing as a square-jawed Resistance pilot, and Finn and Rey are extremely root-able characters. I was also a little moved to see Ford's normal grouchy heroics underlined with traces of hard-won wisdom and regret. What The Force Awakens could have done with, though, was a worthy villain. The antagonist here is Kylo Ren, a Jedi knight who’s gone over to the dark side and is now a Commander in the First Order, a spin-off of the evil Galactic Empire. He has in his possession the twisted, mangled mask that Darth Vader wore and wears a Vader-like mask himself, but his motives are unclear; his backstory is obviously being kept in reserve for the sequels. And when the mask is removed and Adam Driver’s petulant face is revealed, something is lost.

The Force Awakens is snappily written on a scene-to-scene basis, though it’s also true that Abrams, Michael Arndt and Lawrence Kasdan don’t manage anything near as clever as Kirk meeting the older Spock in the Star Trek reboot. By the time the third act comes around, I found myself wishing for a couple of new tricks instead of refashioned old ones. Abrams works well with actors and is, to my mind, a more naturally gifted film-maker than George Lucas, whose limitations were severely exposed when he decided to direct the dreadful prequels himself. But it’s one thing to riff smartly on past successes (which Abrams has done on Mission: Impossible 3, two Star Trek films and Super 8, which used every trick in the Spielberg playbook), quite another to suggest a daring new direction. The Force Awakens is fun while it lasts and a welcome opportunity to meet old friends, but the series might need something more radical if it doesn’t want to be lost in a sea of franchise films.

This review appeared in Mint.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Dilwale: Review

There are stupid films, and there are films that flaunt their stupidity. Rohit Shetty is a frequent purveyor of the latter sort. Such films nearly always have dialogue attributed to Farhad-Sajid. And, of late, they sometimes feature Shah Rukh Khan. Dilwale brings all of them together. It must have taken some doing, but they’ve managed to ensure that the sum is worse than the parts.

Khan plays Raj (not that Raj), owner of a garage in Goa, loving older brother to Veer (Varun Dhawan), and a seemingly well-adjusted guy, give or take memories of being shot in the chest at close range. Yet, when he dresses up like ET, closes the door behind him and doles out a beating to some local thugs like Amitabh Bachchan in Deewar, we realize that this is no ordinary mechanic. In the extended flashback that follows soon after, we learn that he used to be a mafia strongman named Kali, and that he was once in love with a sketch artist called Meera (Kajol)—though why a film this unsubtle would refrain from naming her Simran is beyond me.

This flashback is probably the most watchable part of the film. The sight of Khan and Kajol walking around in a European town—and the sheer history that crackles when they’re on screen together—neutralizes the banal lines and stock situations they’re given. The one scenario that’s novel has been lifted from How I Met Your Mother: Raj taking Meera on a 5-minute date. Still, it at least feels like Shetty and screenwriter Yunus Sajawal have expended some effort in conceptualizing this and executing it as a one-take. Which is way more than you can say for the rest of the film.

(Spoilers ahead.) The big twist—which you can see looming at least 15 minutes before it arrives—is that the crime syndicate Kali’s family is battling is headed by Malik (Kabir Bedi), whose daughter is… Meera. It turns out that she’s a criminal as well, and that it was she who shot Raj 15 years ago. Why does that matter now? Well, Veer is in love with Ishita (Kriti Sanon), who may or may not be related to you know who. Imagine finding yourself living in the same town as an old lover who shot you and discovering your brother is in love with her sister. Of all the exceedingly specific gin joints…

Shetty is the Michael Bay of Indian cinema, attracted to fast cars, gleaming surfaces and crude humour. Does he ever have moments of doubt that aren’t related to box-office collections? Does he sometimes feel that his action sequences lack coherence—that they’re just a collection of fast cuts and flying bodies that leave the viewer bewildered as to the spatial geometry of the scene? Does he worry that his comedy tracks seem like they should be accompanied by a sign that says “comedy track, please laugh”? If he does, these doubts must be fleeting. When five of your films have grossed over Rs 100 crore, there’s no real reason to fret about craft.

And yet, and yet. I watched the film this morning, an 8.15 show on a workday. The hall was packed. Everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves. They laughed when Sanjay Mishra said things like “Bahut kaam hai, total Haldiram hai”. They cheered each time Khan did a slow walk towards the camera. They really seemed to like it when Varun Sharma, playing Veer’s friend, blamed his girlfriend for his financial troubles. Perhaps we get the kind of cinema we deserve.

This review appeared in Mint.

Bajirao Mastani: Review

It’s surprising how Sanjay Leela Bhansali only just got around to making a historical epic. His is a cinema of grand gestures and raised voices, weeping string sections and poetic destruction. When he applies this aesthetic to modern-day stories, the results can seem a bit overwrought, as they did in his last film, Goliyon Ki Raasleela Ram-Leela. But when you’re telling tales of warriors and princesses (and warrior princesses), the setting encourages, even demands, high drama. And no one does drama like Bhansali.

Bhansali had wanted to make a film about the 18th century Maratha peshwa, Bajirao I, and his second wife Mastani, as early as 2003, with Salman Khan in the lead. Over the years, the project kept resurfacing, only to be sent back into the purgatory of development. Finally, the Ram-Leela pair of Ranveer Singh and Deepika Padukone was cast, and production started. In July, a trailer appeared, suggesting similarities to the recently released, already very popular Baahubali.

It turns out Bajirao Mastani is quite different from the Telugu megahit. But you wouldn’t know that from the first 30 minutes, which build up to an extended battle that will be compared—unfavourably—to Baahubali’s crunching action sequences. After the soldier princess Mastani (Padukone) tracks him down and requests his help, Bajirao (Singh) and his army come to the defence of Bundelkhand, which is under siege from the Mughals. The pre-war scenes are beautiful, with one establishing shot that’s a version of the Monument Valley shot in John Ford films, and the stirring visual of an army charging downhill at dusk carrying lit torches (which turns out to be a decoy). But the battle itself is disappointing, and no match for the superior VFX and epic sweep of Baahubali.

Once Bundelkhand has been defended successfully, Bajirao and Mastani waste no time falling dramatically, violently in love (he cauterizes the wound she sustained in battle with his sword, which is a very Bhansali way of telling us they’re made for each other). When he departs soon after on a military campaign, he leaves behind his dagger. In 18th century Bundelkhand, such an action is tantamount to marriage. It’s all the encouragement Mastani needs to leave home and land up at the peshwa’s palace.

This is a problem, because we already know that the peshwa has a wife, Kashibai (Priyanka Chopra). To add insult to injury, Mastani, the illegitimate daughter of the ruler of Bundelkhand and a Persian woman, is Muslim. The film soon becomes a royal triangle, with Bajirao unwilling to listen to his advisers—and his formidable mother, Radhabai (Tanvi Azmi)—who are telling him to keep his new love under wraps as his mistress, and Kashibai and Mastani out-sacrificing each other for his well-being.

Bhansali obviously hasn’t had his fill of star-crossed lovers: Having the leader of a state looking to establish Hindu rule across India fall in love with a Muslim warrior was probably the only way he could have upped the ante on the Romeo and Juliet hijinks of Ram-Leela. While the palace intrigue storyline may not be particularly novel, his flair for colour, movement and visual opulence remains intact, and the writing (story by Bhansali; screenplay by Prakash Kapadia) is significantly better than in his last couple of films. There are moments when the dialogue could be from a less Urdu-heavy Mughal-e-Azam, particularly the charged banter between Radhabai and Mastani—this film’s equivalent of Akbar talking to Anarkali.

Though Bajirao Mastani is more heart than head, there’s one moment when both are equally balanced. Early in the film, we’re shown how the image of Bajirao standing in a glass palace is transmitted via a complex system of mirrors on to a screen in Kashibai’s room. In other words, she can see a film of her husband, an idea perfectly attuned to the historical reality of Maharashtrians being the originators of cinema in India. In a later scene, Kashibai hears her husband in the palace and rushes to look at his image, only to see him embracing Mastani. Though Chopra’s face registers little, it’s a heartbreaking scene, more so for the intricate way in which it’s set up.

Bhansali might be one of the last exponents of the grand old Bollywood style. Melodrama is not only something he’s comfortable with, it’s the air his characters breathe. His songs don’t move the story forward, as the modern style dictates; instead, they are invitations to stop, sit back and gawk at costumes, jewellery, glittery sets and gorgeous people moving in unison. He’s unafraid of placing a tiger in a scene for no reason at all—though the effect is spoilt somewhat by a ridiculous Censor Board-mandated disclaimer that states “Tiger scene shot abroad”.

Singh’s sensual, almost cruel swagger, though familiar by now, is perfectly matched to the brazen character he’s playing. Padukone adds another wilful rebel to her burgeoning roster; though she ends up in chains (cue Anarkali references), it’s her single-minded pursuit of her love that propels the plot. Chopra is a little blank early on, but warms up once her character decides to acknowledge the other woman in her husband’s life. Azmi plays the scary matriarch with as much verve as Supriya Pathak Kapur did in Ram-Leela. Yet, even at their most compelling, there’s one person who’s writ larger than any of them on screen, and that’s Bhansali.

This review appeared in Mint.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Listen To Me Marlon: Review

Listen To Me Marlon has one of the most surreal openings of any film this year. Against a black backdrop, a bright blue digital capture of Marlon Brando’s face flickers into view. The edges of the face are fraying, wispy, like it’s only just being held together by the force of his personality. “Actors are not going to be real, they’re going to be inside a computer,” that unmistakable voice intones. “So maybe this is the swansong for all of us.”

It may well be. For although the voice and face are Brando’s, you’re not watching him—not exactly, anyway. Special effects man Scott Billups made digital captures of Brando’s face in the 1980s for a movie that never materialized. Listen To Me Marlon’s director Stevan Riley had these captures fixed on the face of an actor lip-syncing Brando’s lines, and then worked with animators to render this so that it would seem like Brando was speaking. It’s disturbing, impossibly daring and a little bit deceitful, all at the same time—much like the subject of this documentary.

Listen To Me Marlon took shape when Riley, whose previous work includes the very entertaining West Indian cricket documentary Fire In Babylon, was approached by producer John Battsek to make a film on Brando. Because the film had the blessings of Brando’s estate, Riley was given access to around 300 hours of unreleased audio recordings, ranging from the audio diaries the actor kept to “self-hypnosis” tapes. It allowed him to envision his documentary as an autobiography: a sort of Brando on Brando.

After a brief reference to the shooting his son was involved in in 1990, the film goes back in time to tell the story of Brando in a more or less chronological order. His mumbled commentary (at times difficult to decipher, as it was in his later films) is overlaid with still photographs, scenes from his films, appearances on talk shows and the news, and home movies. Like some extended therapy session—or an out-take from Last Tango In Paris—he talks about his alcoholic mother (he loved the way liquor smelt on her breath) and abusive father. We learn about his conquest of Hollywood and his rapid disenchantment with it, see him marching for civil rights and joining an armed Native American protest.

The quasi-first-person documentary has been a major fixture on the non-fiction film-making landscape in 2015. Amy, about the late singer Amy Winehouse, was constructed out of video and audio fragments culled from hundreds of sources. Cobain: Montage Of Heck had a similar genesis to Riley’s film, built as it was around the unreleased tapes and drawings provided by Kurt Cobain’s estate. Like these two narrator-less films, the only talking head in Listen To Me Marlon is the blue digital one at the start—though viewers would be advised not to take anything the famously unreliable actor says as holy writ.

One of the great pleasures of this film is the glimpses it affords of a young, enthusiastic Brando who just wants to be “as good an actor as (he) can”. The rare moments when he discusses his craft are revelatory: like when he says that you knew what you were going to get with the actors of the 1940s, and that he tried to be like boxer Jersey Joe Walcott, whose punches would come out of nowhere. He pays tribute to his coach Stella Adler, stating that all modern acting stemmed from her. It might not be inaccurate to say that it all stemmed from him; that young actors took to memory-based acting not because Adler taught it but because Brando made it look so vital.

My favourite moment in the film comes some 20 minutes in. Brando is being tested for a Warner Bros. film. He’s asked to stand in profile, turn around. He looks more than a little amused. The camera moves in, as if it can’t resist a closer look at features this radiant. We hear Brando’s voice on the soundtrack. “When the camera is close on you, your face becomes the stage... And it sees all the little movements of the face and the eye and the mouth.” As these words are being spoken, Brando’s expression goes through half a dozen changes. It’s just a screen test, but he can’t stop performing.

Listen To Me Marlon makes for fascinating viewing, even as it struggles to try and make sense of its contradictory and conflicted subject. But the moments when Brando the legend dissolves, and we’re simply watching Marlon the actor, are pure gold.

This review appeared in Mint. 

The Peanuts Movie: Review

It saddens me to say this, for I love Peanuts and would like anything associated to it to succeed, but The Peanuts Movie doesn’t understand what it was that made Charles M. Schulz’s comic strip special. I was wary of seeing characters I had always pictured in 2D rendered in three-dimensional space, but the film does a good job of finding the right physicality and facial qualities for Schulz’s creations. No, the problem lies in the film’s attitude. It’s too well-adjusted. It’s too damn happy.

Peanuts is the most melancholy comic strip that a six-year-old might be allowed to read. It’s built around Charlie Brown—one of the greatest sad sacks of the 20th century—and his inability to do anything right: fly a kite, kick a football without Lucy pulling it away. Nothing else is more integral to Peanuts—not Snoopy’s ceaselessly fertile imagination or Lucy’s crabbiness or Linus’ wisdom—than Charlie Brown’s essential loser-dom. The Peanuts Movie seems to recognize this initially. But then, to my growing horror, director Steve Martino allows things to become warm and fuzzy until it’s just another bland commercial animation up there on screen.

Charles Schulz knew well enough not to mess with tradition. “Charlie Brown can never be a winner,” he once wrote. “He can never win a baseball game because it would destroy the foundation of the strip.” But The Peanuts Movie has him successfully flying a kite (the kite-eating tree actually helps!) and conducting a conversation with the Little Red-Haired Girl. These may seem like small things to a lay viewer, but to a Peanuts fan, it’s the equivalent of letting the Coyote catch the Road Runner.

The makers are clearly in love with the strip, however. The big hits are all there—Snoopy and the Red Baron, the exclamations of “Good grief” and “Aaugh!”, Lucy’s five-cent psychiatric help service—as are the more specific references, like Peppermint Patty mistaking Snoopy for a “funny-looking kid with a big nose”. The animation, though unremarkable, has a bright fluency to it. I will grant that it’s admirable to try and adapt a creation as singular as Peanuts—in 3D—for the screen. Perhaps the early TV specials were greeted with the same scepticism I’m displaying now. Still, when I heard the sad strains of "Christmas Time Is Here", it made me want to get up, go home and watch A Charlie Brown Christmas, which packed more feeling into 25 minutes than this film can muster in an hour and a half.

This review appeared in Mint.

Legend: Review

In the 1950s and 1960s, the London crime scene was ruled by the Kray twins. As Eastenders who ended up rubbing shoulders with Judy Garland and Joe Louis but were also convicted of murder, Ronnie and Reggie Kray have held their own fascination for film-makers over the years. James Fox met Ronnie Kray while preparing to play a gangster in Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg’s 1970 classic Performance. In 1990, there was The Krays, starring two members of the band Spandau Ballet, a film that must have inspired its own unique terror. Now comes the studio version, directed by Brian Helgeland and starring Tom Hardy as both the bespectacled, awkward Ronnie and the smoother Reggie.

Helgeland has written one of the best cops-and-wise-guys movies of the past 20 years in LA Confidential. He also adapted Mystic River, a more sobering look at the effects of gang violence. Legend—his fifth film as director—operates largely in Goodfellas mode: a glamorous gang tale with a voice-over and a period pop soundtrack. Ronnie, with his neurosis and hair-trigger temper, is Joe Pesci, while the suave Reggie is De Niro. There’s even a variation on the Copacabana one-take when Reggie takes his girlfriend, Frances (Emily Browning), to a club, gets interrupted, doles out a beating and returns to his table.

The film follows the twins as they finesse (mostly Reggie) and bludgeon (both) their way across London’s crime scene and into society’s upper echelons just as the cultural explosion of the 1960s is starting to take off. While it does tempt us to think of Reggie as “good” and Ronnie as “bad”, the film never really stops reminding us that both brothers are ruthless; Reggie is simply able to hide his brutality better. Though Helgeland’s writing is frequently funny and the period detail immersive, the film suffers for lack of someone to root for. The only sympathetic character is Frances, who—in an uncharacteristic move—is entrusted the voice-over.

The foregrounding of Frances and Reggie’s relationship is the closest that Helgeland comes to putting his own spin on the gangster movie. But we never get any real perspective from Frances, just the sad realization that her faith in Reggie’s essential good nature was misplaced. Hardy, to his credit, doesn’t try to elicit more sympathy from the audience than his characters deserve. His openly homosexual Reggie—ugly of speech and countenance—is a more interesting creation than Ronnie, though I more enjoyed the work done on the sidelines by David Thewlis (as the Krays’ accountant) and Christopher Eccleston (as the cop chasing them). In the end, Legend is violent, polished, darkly funny—and empty.

This review appeared in Mint.

Angry Indian Goddesses: Review

Angry Indian Goddesses has no intention of letting the audience ease into the film. Ten minutes in, Pammy (Pavleen Gujral) has dropped her gym weights on an eve teaser’s foot; photographer Frieda (Sarah-Jane Dias) has quit a fairness cream shoot; singer Mad (Anushka Manchanda) has attacked hecklers at a show; company head Su (Sandhya Mridul) has chewed out her employees at a meeting; Jo (Amrit Maghera) has spectacularly failed at being a damsel in distress; and Lakshmi (Rajshri Deshpande) has a man, quite literally, by the balls—all this while "In the Hall of the Mountain King" builds to a crescendo in the background. Then, accompanied by the supremely aggressive strains of Bhanvari Devi hollering "Kattey", we crash into the opening credits.

When the film resumes, we’re in Goa. All the women are friends of Frieda’s, who’s invited them over to her house so she can make an announcement. After some prodding, she reveals that she’s getting married, though she’d oddly reluctant to reveal the identity of the groom.

After an opening that operatic, one might have expected things to calm down. But this isn’t that kind of film. Part of Angry Indian Goddesses’ charm (and perhaps its undoing) is its almost unceasing energy. Director Pan Nalin (Samsara, Faith Connections) keeps the screen buzzing with overlapping dialogue and loudly voiced opinions, jumpy camerawork and even jumpier editing. Secrets keep spilling out: Mad has attempted suicide; Pammy is in an unhappy marriage. My favourite might be Su’s unfortunate reaction to the arrival of another of Frieda’s friends, Nargis (Tannishtha Chatterjee). It turns out she’s an activist protesting Su’s company’s land acquisition plans.

At times, it’s all a bit much. Forcing Nargis and her ideological opposite to live under the same roof is contrived enough, but having Su’s child bring them together is just too sentimental. The scenes with Jo daydreaming about the shirtless car-washer next door seem like a cross between a condom ad and a bad Terrence Malick imitation. The hugs-per-scene ratio is dangerously high. There’s an unfortunate tendency to lecture the audience on everything from land-grabbing to Section 377. And though it’s perfectly fine to want to keep the film free of men, it makes little sense to have Mad’s boyfriend travel 600 km to see if she’s all right and shunt him out of the story immediately after.

It’s difficult to predict what the audience will make of the events of the last 20 minutes. One can argue that something of this nature has been simmering through the whole film. While this is true, I feel the film would have been just as hard-hitting – and a bit more convincing—if it had kept its characters’ problems life-size. Then again, it’s tough to imagine a film like this not going out with an especially loud bang.

Had the ensemble been flat or awkward or unconvincing with each other, Angry Indian Goddesses would have fallen flat. But the performers, many of them only a film or two old, are all visibly comfortable in their skin and with one another. Dias is beautifully poised as the quiet Frieda; Gujral, playing the Punjabi ditz, is very funny; and Deshpande shoots off sparks as the house help Lakshmi. The film juggles the characters around, pairs them up in different scenes, and though not all the combinations work, we do get a sense of what they’re like as individuals.

Angry Indian Goddesses has been promoted as India’s first female buddy film, and its best moments are the ones with the six women sitting around, cussing (there’s a lot of that – muted at random by the censors), getting drunk, and talking about everything that comes into their minds, with Lakshmi hovering somewhere in the background. When’s the last time you saw a female character in a Hindi film have a wet dream, or come out to her friends? If the answer is ‘never’, Angry Indian Goddesses might make for instructive viewing.

This review appeared in Mint. 

Sunday, December 6, 2015

The many resurrections of Manoj Bajpayee

A man sits alone in a dark room listening to a cassette player. He’s drinking whisky, humming along to "Aap Ki Nazron Ne Samjha" from the 1962 film Anpadh, occasionally murmuring the words. He’s transported by the music, but he also looks, to borrow a line from "Heartbreak Hotel", so lonely he could die.

This is Shrinivas Ramchandra Siras, the tragic centre of Aligarh, Hansal Mehta’s film on the Marathi literature professor at Aligarh Muslim University whose sexual encounter with another man was caught on camera and leaked to the press. It resulted in his suspension by the university, which he challenged in court. He won the case and was reinstated, but died shortly afterwards under mysterious circumstances.

Siras is played in the film by Manoj Bajpayee. Those who know him only through his barnstorming roles in Satya, Shool and Gangs Of Wasseypur might be surprised at the ease with which the 46-year-old actor slips under the skin of the quiet, self-effacing Siras. Out of little tics and hesitations he builds a tender performance, one that makes possible a deep empathy with a character far removed from most viewers’ experience: a middle-class gay intellectual in small-town India.

“Even the finest actors will have great difficulty showing somebody’s loneliness. To put an actor on a chair and ask him to do nothing and yet tell the viewer everything about the character, it’s a difficult task,” says Bajpayee. We are in his Lokhandwala apartment. He’s been keeping one eye on his spark plug of a four-year-old, but she’s leaving now with her mother, the actor Shabana Raza, whom Bajpayee married in 2003. He goes back to talking about the singing in the dark scene. “Hansal’s an easygoing guy, but he just enjoys thinking up these bizarre shots and throwing them at the actors.”

This is the second time Bajpayee and Mehta have collaborated. Their first film together was a fascinating, largely forgotten 2000 comedy-drama called Dil Pe Mat Le Yaar!!, though they’d been friends since Mehta directed the actor in a TV series called Kalakaar back in 1994. Despite their long friendship, Mehta hadn’t considered Bajpayee for the role of Siras until casting director Mukesh Chhabra suggested his name. Bajpayee remembers Chhabra calling him up and telling him not to pass on the role. “I said, I don’t even know about this movie. I asked him to tell Hansal to give me a call. When Hansal called, I started abusing him.”

Aligarh premiered at the Busan Film Festival in South Korea in October, travelled to the BFI London Film Festival and was the opening film at the MAMI Mumbai Film Festival in November. Its India release is set for February, by which time Bajpayee would have completed 22 years in the industry. It’s been anything but a smooth run. Several times, the man whom Mehta calls “India’s most versatile actor” has had to claw his way back into the public’s consciousness after fallow periods brought on by limited options and bad choices.

Comebacks are for cricketers; Manoj Bajpayee is a resurrection specialist.


Bajpayee was born in Belwa, a small village in Champaran, Bihar, not far from the Nepal border. He was the second of six children. His father, a farmer, never achieved his dream of going to medical school and was determined that all his children complete graduation at the very least. Bajpayee describes his own childhood as “blessed”. “You will never understand unless you come from a farmer’s family,” he says. “It’s difficult for the father to bring up those children, but it’s such a beautiful experience for them to be in that environment.” One of his early memories is of hiding his father from the co-operative bank loan recovery men when they came around to collect.

Bajpayee’s parents were film buffs—he was named after actor Manoj Kumar—and whenever they went to Bettiah, the nearest town with a cinema hall, they’d try and catch a show. So would young Bajpayee, whose earliest film-related memory is watching the 1968 comedy Padosan. Like most small-town theatres, the cinema could not afford to procure reels of current hits most of the time and played reruns of old films instead. Bajpayee remembers seeing classics such as Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam, Awara, Yahudi, even the 1935 “Fearless Nadia” film Hunterwali as a child.

He began performing in school, in elocution contests (prompted by a teacher who felt the experience would make him more social) and skits. It was here that he developed a love for reciting poetry—a practice he believes has benefitted him tremendously and which he recommends to aspiring actors. There’s a YouTube video of him from earlier this year reciting Ramdhari Singh Dinkar’s epic poem "Rashmirathi". Even in a performance this informal, it’s revealing to note how easily the words roll off his tongue, how he knows just when to slow down and speed up, raise an eyebrow, bring those expressive hands with their long fingers into play. You can gauge how seriously he takes his characters’ vocal rhythms from the fact that he immersed himself in Marathi literature while preparing for Aligarh, even though he doesn’t speak the language in the film.

Like so many actors of his generation, his life changed after watching Amitabh Bachchan in Zanjeer. That was the moment he knew he wanted to be an actor, though he couldn’t bring himself to tell his folks. So he went to Delhi University, first to Satyawati College, then to Ramjas, ostensibly to study. There, he threw himself into the campus theatre scene, performing in street plays and stage productions, reading, strengthening his grip on English. “Those three years of DU were life-changing for me,” he says. “I went from someone who could not read the front page of The Times Of India to reading Shaw and Shakespeare.” However, he was also living hand to mouth. His father would send Rs 200 a month; once he paid his rent, mess fees and bought a bus pass, he’d be left with Rs 20.

Bajpayee’s all-consuming goal was to join the National School of Drama. During his three years on campus, he’d built a bit of a reputation as an actor and was confident he’d be accepted. He wasn’t. The rejection sent him into a spiral, and thoughts of suicide entered his mind. A friend convinced him to attend a year-long workshop being conducted by the Sambhav theatre group. This led to roles in plays, some of which were directed by NSD alumni. The actor Raghubir Yadav pointed him towards a workshop being conducted by director and acting coach Barry John. He attended this, alongside another unknown young man called Shah Rukh Khan. John was impressed and hired Bajpayee to assist him with his teaching. This left Bajpayee free to act for other troupes. He soon became a sought-after actor on the Delhi theatre circuit and formed his own company, Act One, with N.K. Sharma in 1990.

Bajpayee’s NSD dream, meanwhile, had a bittersweet ending. He applied the year after he was rejected, and the year after that. When he tried for the fourth time, they offered him a teaching position at the school instead.

One day in 1992, his friend Tigmanshu Dhulia, then the casting director for Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen, sought him out. Kapur had seen his photographs and was considering him for the role of daku Vikram Mallah in the film. That role eventually went to Nirmal Pandey; Bajpayee remembers seeing a “tall, Jesus Christ-looking guy” with Dhulia and telling himself that the part was no longer his. Bajpayee was cast in the smaller part of Man Singh, one of the dacoits who joins up with Phoolan Devi. In a film bursting with great performances, his intensity is palpable, but because he had only 15-odd minutes of screen time and about as many lines, he went, in his own words, “completely unnoticed”.

Well, not completely. Two years after Bandit Queen released, Bajpayee met Ram Gopal Varma for a supporting role in Daud. He’d taken Kapur’s advice and moved to Mumbai to pursue a film career, but the initial years were a struggle. His first marriage ended in divorce, his health deteriorated, and roles just weren’t forthcoming. A part on the TV soap Swabhimaan ensured that some money was flowing in. Still, when he met Varma in 1996, he was desperate for work, any work. When Varma heard that Bajpayee had played Man Singh in Bandit Queen, he jumped up. “I’ve been trying to locate you since then. Where were you?”

Varma promised Bajpayee a role in his next venture, an as-yet-unnamed gangster film set in Mumbai. This, of course, was Satya, the film that would change Bajpayee’s fortunes forever. Bajpayee was given the task of finding writers for the film. The first person he brought in was a young man who met him at director Sriram Raghavan’s office and told him how much he admired his performance in a play called Netua. That was Anurag Kashyap. The second was his former roommate Saurabh Shukla, who also played Kallu Mama in the film.

The rest of the team soon fell into place: actors J.D. Chakravarthy, Urmila Matondkar and Shefali Shah (then Chhaya), cinematographer Gerard Hooper, editor Apurva Asrani (who would go on to write Aligarh). Though the titular character was being played by Chakravarthy, everyone associated with the film knew that the lit fuse at its centre was the role in which Bajpayee was cast, that of the gangster Bheeku Mhatre. The film released in July 1998.


Much has been written about the seismic effects of Satya, of how it introduced a welcome grittiness to romantic, choreographed 1990s Bollywood, the ways in which it changed the grammar of Hindi cinema. Yet, not nearly enough attention has been paid to the centrality of Bajpayee to the film’s success and ensuing legend. Time has done little to dim the danger and magnetism of Bheeku Mhatre, but even so, viewers who were too young to see it in theatres will have to imagine the thrill of seeing him shout “Mumbai ka king kaun?” for the first time. I was in school when Satya released, and I remember all anyone could talk about was this new actor called Bajpayee. Was he the hero? No, but he wasn’t the villain either.

In truth, it was a new kind of performance. In it lay the seeds of compelling, many-shaded roles by actors who emerged in Bajpyee’s wake: Irrfan Khan in Maqbool, Nawazuddin Siddiqui in Gangs Of Wasseypur, Kay Kay Menon in Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi. Just like Bajpayee saw Bachchan in Zanjeer and tried to recreate the police station scene, so hundreds of young performers now tried to imitate the infectious laugh that seemed to bubble up through Bheeku. Chhabra says he gets around 200 aspiring actors a month telling him they took to acting after seeing Bajpayee in Satya.

“Manoj’s contribution to this whole indie scene has gone unheralded,” Mehta says over the phone from Patiala. “He’s the man who opened the doors for everyone else. He began that whole alternate star cult.” In a 2014 interview to DNA, Menon was even more emphatic. “If it were not for Manoj’s brilliant performance in Satya, actors like Irrfan and me might still be waiting to be accepted. Manoj opened the doors for us.”

Ashish Vidyarthi, who knows Bajpayee from Delhi, says the hallmarks of his approach—obsessive preparation, commitment to the material—were evident even in his early theatre days. He speaks admiringly of Bajpayee’s gift for “detailing”, a factor he believes sets the actor apart from his peers. “He’s willing to take that leap—to embrace fear, to be vulnerable, yet confident in his craft,” Vidyarthi says.


As is the norm in Bollywood after a breakthrough, Bajpayee found himself being offered more of the same. The “Hindie” didn’t really exist then, and the industry was dominated by commercial film-makers. “They had to offer me something,” he says, “but they couldn’t change themselves. They could only change the doctor or the inspector into Bheeku Mhatre. It was hard, saying no to loads of money, still staying in a rented place.” Eventually, he found his next two roles through the Varma-Kashyap combine.

Eight months after Satya, he appeared in Varma’s three-character psychological thriller Kaun? His wheedling insurance salesman makes an entry 20 minutes in, after we’ve seen a jumpy Urmila Matondkar alone at home on a rainy night, watching a news flash about a serial killer on the loose. Bajpayee takes credit for introducing comic tones into what had been, on paper, a serious part. His aim, he says, was to maintain a balance of “annoying and suspicious”—enough to break the tension, but not so relaxed that the audience stop believing he could be the killer. It’s a lovely bit of horror film acting: rapid-fire line delivery, unblinking eyes, tense, high giggle.

Later that year, Bajpayee headlined a film for the first time, in Shool, directed by Varma’s former assistant E. Nivas and written by Kashyap. This time, there was no trace of levity in his performance. If one were to crown the angriest Hindi film character ever, Samar Pratap Singh would be in a dead heat with Om Puri’s tortured cop in Ardh Satya. Shool was a fairly standard honest-man-against-broken-system drama, but was elevated by the specificity of the writing and the rural Bihar setting, and by Bajpayee’s volcanic performance. “I knew that if I don’t maintain the intensity, this film will fall flat,” he says. “If you see the film, even if I smile a little bit, I wipe it off immediately.” Staying in character took a toll on him; months after the shoot, he was snapping at people and having nightmares.

Over the next two years, Bajpayee continued to subvert expectations. In 2000, he was the shy, soft-spoken Ram Saran Pandey in Hansal Mehta’s Dil Pe Mat Le Yaar!!. The film went largely unnoticed, but seen now, it feels like one of his most personal performances; one can imagine him drawing on his memories as a migrant to Mumbai (Pandey is from Jaunpur, Uttar Pradesh) and the culture shock he experienced. The following year, he got a chance to appear alongside Bachchan in Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s Aks. Playing a psychopath who, midway through the film, enters the body of Bachchan’s upright police officer, allowed Bajpayee to go boldly over the top; he seemed thrilled when I told him I thought his performance predicted Heath Ledger’s as The Joker in The Dark Knight. Three years later, he won a Special Jury National Award for his performance as Rashid in the partition drama Pinjar.


Then, just when it all seemed to be going so well, it started slipping. Unwilling to play another villain, he told his friend Tigmanshu Dhulia to cast Irrfan Khan in Haasil. He lobbied for the lead in Maqbool, Vishal Bhardwaj’s adaptation of Macbeth, but Bhardwaj (another friend from DU) decided to go with Khan. Films such as Fareb, Bewafaa and Inteqam came and went, making little if any impression on the public. 1971—a little-seen, underrated army drama—was a bright spot, but by 2007 the actor had, by his own admission, “disappeared”. A shoulder injury kept him out of action for a year. Worse was to follow: Money Hai Toh Honey Hai, Acid Factory, Jail.

The kind of cinema Satya had helped foster was now gathering steam, but Bajpayee wasn’t a part of it. “All these directors were coming up—Vishal Bhardwaj, Dibakar Banerjee, Anurag Kashyap, Imtiaz Ali—but because of my failures and some wrong choices I made, I was down and out,” he says. Yet, he remained calm, waited for that one special role to come along. Supporting turns in Prakash Jha’s message-driven multi-starrers Raajneeti and Aarakshan kept him in the public eye. Then, one night, Kashyap called and asked him if he’d come over and listen to an idea.

Chhabra, casting director on Gangs of Wasseypur, recalled how Bajpayee’s name was being thrown around from the beginning for the gangster Sardar Khan. “It was his space, his style, his language,” he says. “The combination was right.” Bajpayee felt so too and joined the production. He also agreed to a drastically altered new look, agreeing to go bald for the role—Kashyap felt it would help deepen the character’s sexual aura.

If Bheeku Mhatre is the ego, Sardar Khan is the id: a repository of barely suppressed urges, both sexual and violent. Considering he’s such a reprobate, it’s also a strangely beautiful performance, with Bajpayee prowling the screen like a panther, speaking in a musical Bihari drawl, getting leered at like some six-pack-sporting hero while sporting a langot in the "O Womaniya" song sequence. The film was the big critical success of 2012. Just like that, everyone was talking about Bajpayee again. Later that year, he appeared in Chittagong as the schoolteacher and revolutionary Surya Sen. One of his students in the film was Siddiqui, who had appeared onscreen with him for all of 90 seconds in Shool more than a decade ago. Another was Rajkummar Rao, who told me that one of his main reasons for doing the film was that he’d get to work with Bajpayee.

I ask Bajpayee if he feels he paved the way for actors like these. “I don’t know about that,” he says, “but I would say I’ve taken the brunt. I’ve accepted loads of criticism and sacrificed so much money to do what I wanted to do—which, in a very small way, contributed to making things easy for my kind of actors.” He’s bullish about the kind of work that’s being done on the edges of the mainstream today, even if the new indie directors seem to think of Siddiqui or Khan more readily than they do of him. After the two Wasseypur films, one might have expected the quality of offers to improve appreciably, but there haven’t been any overwhelming indications of this. His one notable release since Wasseypur (unless one counts Satyagraha or Tevar) was Neeraj Pandey’s smart crime comedy Special 26. In the same time, Siddiqui has been in Monsoon Shootout, Badlapur, Liar’s Dice and Haraamkhor; Khan in The Lunchbox, Life of Pi, Piku and Talvar; Sanjay Mishra in Ankhon Dekhi and Masaan. “I’ve been saying no to roles for the past six months,” Bajpayee admits, “which is not a very good sign.”

Aligarh’s theatrical release in February will serve as yet another reminder to audiences and film-makers of Bajpayee’s range and commitment. He has four other projects in various stages of completion—Soumendra Padhi’s Duronto, Neeraj Pandey’s Saat Uchakkey, Mukul Abhyankar’s Missing and Rajesh Pillai’s Traffic—and is hoping at least a couple release this year. Though Bajpayee says the thought of hiring an agent in Los Angeles somehow makes him feel tired, Chhabra says that a Hollywood project is on the cards. He’d like to return to the stage someday, but for now he seems content to do what he’s always done: remain picky, keep calm and wait on a good part.

This piece appeared in Mint Lounge. You can read that version here.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Creed: Review

In Rocky and Rocky II, Sylvester Stallone’s perennial underdog was pitted against Apollo Creed, heavyweight champion of the world. He lost to him in the first film, and beat him the second time around. In Rocky III, Creed took over as Rocky’s trainer after the death of his friend and coach Mickey. And in Rocky IV, Creed died after a brutal pummelling by a Russian fighter, leaving Rocky—who was in his corner—to agonize over whether he could have saved his life by throwing in the towel earlier.

When we first encounter Adonis Johnson, he’s a suit-and-tie-wearing executive moonlighting as a boxer at an underground ring in Tijuana, Mexico. He wins his 15th straight fight, quits his job, and suddenly we’re in a flashback, with a young Adonis, fatherless and disturbed, in a correctional facility. A woman seeks him out there; she reveals that she’s his father’s wife and wants him to live with her. What was his name, he asks? Instead of her answer, the film’s title appears emblazoned across the screen: Creed.

Now, this is undoubtedly mainstream corn. But it’s done with such economy and feeling that you not only accept the emotional blast but are grateful for it. The heartfelt franchise film has become a rarity nowadays—and it makes sense that a spin-off of Rocky, the very model of a heart-on-sleeve sports movie, would be the one to fill the breach. But Creed is also fleet-footed and taut, rather like the aptly named Adonis, who seeks out Rocky Balboa and asks him to be his trainer. Rocky’s not interested initially—he’s still feeling guilty over Apollo—but Adonis wears him down. They start training and, in the spirit of the series, Adonis finds himself up against the heavyweight champion of the world, “Pretty” Ricky Conlan (Tony Bellew).

Creed is directed by Ryan Coogler, whose first feature was the well-received 2013 indie Fruitvale Station (Michael B. Jordan, who starred in that film, plays Adonis). It’s a surprisingly smooth shift to the mainstream for Coogler. Creed hasn’t an ounce of fat of it, burning through its pleasingly predictable plot with good humour and tremendous energy. Nothing impedes the film’s onward drive: not Adonis’ daddy issues, or his taking a liking to a singer called Bianca (Tessa Thompson), or the revelation that Rocky has cancer.

With its tearful mothers and musical interludes and unfettered emotions, Creed comes close to the spirit of films made in India. What could not have been achieved here is the kind of immediacy to the fighters it allows. Coogler keeps the fights free of distracting camera effects, and the results are as close to the real thing as possible. You can feel the weight of the punches as they land, hear the whistle of the rope as Adonis skips during training.

And then there’s Stallone, 69 years old, the stallion put out to pasture. You can sense the film’s affection for him in the way it allows him to ramble on, to say old-man things in that familiar semi-indecipherable gurgle of his. Stallone may not have become a great actor, but he’s found a way to be an affecting presence. For the first time in a long while, it’s a pleasure to be in his corner.

This review appeared in Mint.

Tamasha: Review

By now, it’s pretty much accepted that Imtiaz Ali is Indian cinema’s last great romantic. While it’s true that his films are all founded on love—invariably lost, sometimes found—there’s another theme that runs through them: the search for the self. Ali’s characters are often found adopting new identities (Rockstar), being challenged to reevaluate existing ones (Jab We Met), rejecting ones mandated by society (Highway). Tamasha, his sixth film as writer-director, is his most explicit examination of these issues.

Two Indians meet on the island of Corsica. She’s about to reveal her name when he stops her. Let’s not tell each other anything, he says, or it’ll be the same old story. He tells her his name is Don; she plays along, calls herself Mona Darling. Other rules are set: no staying in touch afterwards, and no sex. Neither of which makes much sense—it seems like the ideal scenario for a torrid, commitment-free affair—but if characters were making sound emotional decisions, this wouldn’t be an Imtiaz Ali film. The two of them spend a blissful couple of days together, share one kiss, and then she leaves.

Four years pass. The girl (Deepika Padukone) hasn’t been able to forget the brazen, charming guy (Ranbir Kapoor) she met. She haunts a bar she has reason to believe he’ll be at. Incredibly, she finds him there. In a beautifully awkward scene, they introduce themselves as Ved and Tara. He hasn’t gotten over her either, and asks her out on a date. It’s obvious that something’s wrong, but they persist. It’s only when he asks her to marry him that she refuses. She was expecting the rake she met in Corsica, but Ved is just a tie-wearing, corporate lingo-spouting Everyman.

As Ved disintegrates, so does the film. Considering it teases the idea that all stories are essentially the same—a generalization I have trouble getting on board with—there seemed a very real possibility that Tamasha would turn into Ali’s 2011 film Rockstar, the longest sustained hissy fit in Indian cinema after Devdas hit the bottle. Luckily, it doesn’t go that far: Ved is too meek to be truly self-destructive. Returning to his childhood home, he visits an old man who used to tell him folk tales, and demands to hear his own story’s ending. When he’s thrown out, the message is clear: write your own destiny.

While no one could accuse it of being subtle, Tamasha is affecting in parts, thanks in large measure to its lead players. Kapoor, with his gift for light comedy and mimicry, outpaces Padukone in the Corsica leg, but when they return to India and things become complicated, her pain is as palpable as his (this in spite of Tara being an underwritten character). Ali’s direction has also acquired a lightness of touch; when we first see Ved as a child, the legend reads “Shimla, flashback”, a little joke but also perhaps a reference to how memories are edited into home movies in our imagination. What he might need, though, is a writing partner, someone who can supply him stories and characters that aren’t composites of what he’s written earlier.

This review appeared in Mint.

X: Past is Present: Review

X: Past Is Present has the right number of directors to make up a cricket team. Perhaps they needed a coach as well, someone to look at the bigger picture, as it were, and tell them whether they were on track. X has been promoted as a work of great ambition and daring: one man’s story, a kind of portrait of an artist as a young and middle-aged douchebag, told by 11 film-makers. What it ends up as is a hydra-headed misfire.

X begins with a jaded-looking middle-aged film-maker, K (Rajat Kapoor), striking up a conversation with an unnamed young woman (Aditi Chengappa) at a party. Their talk—awkwardly scripted and delivered, like much of the film, in English—stretches into the night, and is the film’s framing device. K tells his companion about his past loves, whom we see in 10 separate flashbacks, each handled by a different director. Neither Kapoor nor Anshuman Jha (who plays the younger K) is fully glimpsed in any of these flashbacks; it’s as if the remembrances were one long lucid dream, or a movie K is directing in his head. We only see the women, the exes of the title.

As might be expected when 11 directors—(deep breath) Abhinav Shiv Tiwari, Anu Menon, Hemant Gaba, Nalan Kumarasamy, Pratim D. Gupta, Q, Rajshree Ojha, Sandeep Mohan, Sudhish Kamath, Suparn Verma and Raja Sen—tackle different portions of the same film, the result is a grab-bag of styles, tones, attitudes and rhythms. The diversity itself isn’t a problem—one could overlook tonal inconsistencies if the constituent parts packed their own, specialized punches. But there’s hardly a segment which doesn’t fall apart due to indifferent acting, scripting, directing, or a hellish combination of the three.

There are episodes which implode spectacularly, like the one in which a young K, pitching a film to a potential investor, is schooled by his trophy wife (Gabriella Schmidt) in the consumption of oysters (“As if you were eating pussy,” she says— like the audience hadn’t already guessed where the scene was going). Others defy logic, like the one in which K is condescending towards a fan (Richa Shukla) at a film festival, then propositions her, gets rejected, then slapped, and is ultimately invited home by her. Then there are the head-scratchers: like the final flashback, which seems to suggest that K’s deep-seated commitment issues stem from an early traumatic incident; or the episode directed by Q and featuring three Riis, which would require a much braver critic than this one to try and interpret.

The segment which worked best was the variation on the Italo Calvino story, The Adventure Of A Married Couple, which also formed the basis for Aditya Vikram Sengupta’s Labour Of Love. Like that film, this segment is also set in Kolkata. It’s a wisp of an idea: K and a girl (Parno Mittra) are boarders in the same house; they stick to their rooms, read poetry, play guitars, and never meet. When he leaves, she’s heartbroken. That’s about it—no pop psychology, no look-ma-no-hands camera movements. It’s the slightest of the stories, but I’ll take it over the Dutch-angled ex-wife episode, or the meta pretensions and deliberately sloppy camerawork of Q’s segment.

The performances are as widely varying as everything else in X. Swara Bhaskar is both funny and knowingly seductive, while Huma Qureshi lends intensity to an otherwise perplexing segment built around a mock interview. Kapoor plays his caricature of a self-absorbed director straight and ends up less magnetic than the film might have wanted; his scenes with the monotoned Chengappa fall particularly flat. Most of the time, though, the actors are defeated by the writing, which ranges from stuff no one would ever say (“Why are you with this beast?”) to things you wish they wouldn’t (“[Movies are] your ticket to escape from the misery of life”).

Perhaps there’ll be those who’ll find something resonant in X, who might be moved to try and figure out the time-travel business teased towards the end. Personally, I doubt I would have thought less or more of the film if K and his friend had come across the DeLorean, travelled back to the start of the film and begun their conversation again. I wouldn’t stick around for the rerun, though. If past is present, my time is all the more precious.

This review appeared in Mint.

Spectre: Review

The Daniel Craig cycle of Bond films has produced a gritty, much-needed reboot (Casino Royale), an uncharacteristically sober-sided follow-up (Quantum of Solace), and a gorgeous techno-thriller in Skyfall. One of the more daring innovations of the first two films was their determination to give Bond a measure of melancholy and personal pain to underpin his implacable exterior. Even Skyfall, which returned Bond to his wisecracking ways, found time to explore his relationship with the one female constant in his life, M.

Spectre—the 24th film in the series—tries to tie Bond’s losses in a neat little bow by attributing them to a single enemy. But this time, the emotionalism doesn’t feel organic. Spectre has the same director (Sam Mendes) and writers (Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, John Logan) as Skyfall, but there isn’t a single idea in this film that can match the simple yet oddly moving decision that closes out that film, of sending Bond back to his childhood home. Instead, old hits are rehashed: the international crime ring, a surveillance state gone militant, the Bond-has-gone-rogue routine.

We begin in Mexico City, where the film’s one memorable action sequence unfolds against the backdrop of the Day of the Dead carnival. A long, unbroken take takes Bond, in a skull mask and with a pretty woman on his arm, from the teeming streets, up an elevator and into a hotel room. Pleasure will have to wait, though, while Bond foils a stadium bombing, blows up a building himself, and grapples with an assassin called Sciarra in a helicopter. Sciarra’s octopus-emblazoned ring then leads him to Rome, to a meeting of an international crime syndicate called SPECTRE, which, we’re later informed, included Le Chiffre, Dominic Greene and Raoul Silva—the villains of the previous three films.

No effort is made to substantiate this bizarre twist—nor is the impact what the makers might have hoped for. We’re not even sure why SPECTRE does what it does, except that its head, Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz), holds an ancient grudge against Bond. Cut off by M, who’s embroiled in a paper-thin parallel plot involving a new intelligence service and the scrapping of the 00 programme, Bond spends the rest of the film hunting down Oberhauser, picking up a fellow-traveller along the way: Dr Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux), the daughter of a former adversary, whom he swears to protect.

Madeleine’s reasons for being in the film aren’t particularly convincing, but in this instance it’s easy to forgive the writers, for it allows us to spend some time in the company of Seydoux, who has a whale of a time. Her line readings are a touch over the top—deliberately so, I think—which is how Bond ought to be treated, with a wink. Watching her go to sleep drunkenly muttering, “To liars and killers everywhere,” one realizes how badly the rest of the film could have done with this sort of pulp lyricism.

Apart from Seydoux, Ben Whishaw as Q, and the ever-watchful, watchable Craig, nothing works as it should. Ralph Fiennes, taking over from Judi Dench, is a nervy M, while Christoph Waltz’s mincing villain isn’t a patch on the adversaries essayed by Javier Bardem and Mads Mikkelsen in previous films. The action sequences are splashy, but—Mexico City apart—uninventive and visually drab. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema can’t provide anything near the visual excitement Roger Deakins brought to Skyfall. Most crippling, though, is the lack of wit. There was a time when a Bond screenplay would consist solely of wisecracks. Now, you get twist upon unconvincing twist when all you want is a good joke.

Casino Royale and Skyfall suggested there were still ways left to tell a Bond story that weren’t archaic or rehashed. Spectre is a reminder of how straight-jacketed most Bond films usually are. Studio logic might dictate that it’s time for another reboot. But how many times can something be rebooted before the batteries give up the ghost?

Taxi: Review

One of the ironies of the Iranian government’s 2010 decision to ban Jafar Panahi from directing films for 20 years is that this seems to have spurred him on creatively and furthered his influence. Had he stopped working after the ban, he would still have had a place in Iranian cinema history, having made films like The Circle, Crimson Gold and the remarkable Offside. But he didn't, choosing instead to subvert the diktat with a run of films that is as strong a statement of artistic freedom as anything in the recent arts.

His first project after the ban, 2011’s This Is Not A Film, appeared to be a little home movie about Panahi coming to terms with the ban. It’s actually a high-wire act. Panahi can’t seem like he’s directing, yet he can’t stop directing either—it’s his natural state. The film was smuggled out of the country on a flash drive hidden in a birthday cake, and premiered at the Cannes Film Festival. Panahi’s next film, Closed Curtain (2013)—about an artist who’s afraid he’s being watched, as Panahi most certainly was—was a more cerebral piece, and closer to an actual “filmed” film.

Taxi returns Panahi to the documentary style of This Is Not A Film, but the ruefulness has been replaced by a wry humour and a surprising ebullience. The film takes place almost entirely inside a taxi, with the director as driver, carrying forward the conceit of Panahi not officially “directing” the action. There’s a camera in front that the passengers acknowledge, but it’s obviously not the only one being used. It’s all an elaborate joke, one that most of the “passengers” are in on. “Mr Panahi, that man and woman... they were actors, right?”, a seller of pirated DVDs asks about the previous fares. Panahi just smiles.

Taxi is funny and revealing enough to be enjoyed without any knowledge of its subtext. The passengers include a street tough who argues for capital punishment, two pushy old ladies with a goldfish, an injured man and his frantic wife (whose story reaches a deliciously dry conclusion off-screen). There’s Panahi’s schoolgoing niece, whose movie project for class allows the film to send up the Iranian censors: One of the rules is that she avoid “sordid realism’”, another stipulates that the good guys have beards. And there’s Panahi’s friend, a lawyer, who, in a heart-warming moment, offers a rose to the audience, the “people of cinema”, who “can be relied upon”.

This isn’t the first time an Iranian director has done the whole drive-around-Tehran-in-a-car thing. Abbas Kiarostami’s Ten, for instance, was modelled along similar lines. But Taxi is hardly a retread: the two films are very different in tone, treatment and subject matter. Kiarostami’s film, less playful than Panahi’s, was mainly about the position of women in modern Iranian society. Taxi, on the other hand, revolves around broader themes of freedom, censorship and subversion. Both were widely acclaimed: Ten was included in film journal Cahiers du Cinéma’s “Best Films of the 2000s” list, while Taxi won the Golden Bear at the Berlinale earlier this year. Both are films for the ages.

This review appeared in Mint.

Main Aur Charles: Review

Heard of this chap called Sobhraj? Great guy. Well-read. Well-dressed too. Good cook. And quite the ladies’ man—every time you see him, he’s with a new girl. What’s that? He killed 12 people in cold blood? I heard something like that. But if you get to know him, you’ll see he’s a really nice person.

Such is Main Aur Charles’ position on Mr Charles Sobhraj, serial killer, escape artist and celebrity. Movies have been glamorizing criminals from the days of hand-cranked cameras, but half an hour in, Prawaal Raman’s film is in danger of massively overselling its protagonist. The film’s hardly started when Sobhraj (Randeep Hooda) is described as “intelligent, hypnotic, ruthless and brutal” (he’s called “hypnotic” again later). At one point, he’s compared to Robin Hood. “Whenever I see you, I want to have sex with you,” says Mira (Richa Chadha), one of his many, many girlfriends. The film seems to have the hots for him too.

The problem is, for the first half, we’re shown no evidence of anything that marks Sobhraj out as special, apart from his ability to bed a prodigious number of women. The film opens with one of his victims washing up on a beach in Thailand (we’re shown no murders—that would be so inelegant). The scene shifts to Delhi, a couple of years down the line, where Sobhraj is serving a jail sentence. He breaks out of prison and heads to Mumbai, then Goa, changing women along the way like so many peaked caps. After around 45 minutes of very little happening, he’s caught again. So much for the master criminal spiel.

The structural issue with Main Aur Charles is that there is actually a reason for Sobhraj’s apparent unimpressiveness in the first hour, but by the time this is revealed, the film has already lost much of its grip on the audience. It’s not that Main Aur Charles is difficult to sit through even when it’s meandering: There is a fair amount of pulpy pleasure to be had in Hooda’s preening and commitment to a French accent (not much worse than Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s in The Walk), Anuj Rakesh Dhawan’s flashy cinematography, and the consistently overripe dialogue. Still, there’s little doubt that the last 45 minutes or so, when inspector Amod Kanth (Adil Hussain) gets Sobhraj back to Delhi and tries to build a case against him but is frustrated by everyone’s infatuation with the killer, is the strongest part.

It’s difficult to know what to make of a film that casts Chadha as a wide-eyed ingénue (surely there’s no shortage of those in Bollywood?) or suggests that Sobhraj is more victim than aggressor, something Mira tries to explain to Kanth without a trace of irony. Are we meant to take this at face value? Or is it just Raman’s way of showing how completely Sobhraj’s accomplices come under his spell? I wish the film hadn’t left it so late before it showed its central character doing something truly clever. Up till then, Hussain’s by-the-book but dogged 'Main' is a lot more intriguing than Charles.

Hooda’s Sobhraj is a cipher, a beautiful surface with no indication of the emotions—if any—that are raging underneath. Towards the end, there’s a scene with Kanth and Sobhraj talking in the inspector’s office, the criminal telling the cop about the pleasures of doing wrong. The words themselves are banal, but the look on Hooda’s face in that instant is transporting. It was the only moment when I felt like subscribing to the cult of Sobhraj.

This review appeared in Mint.

Titli: Review

Hope is in short supply in Titli. So are the other comforts we’re conditioned to expect in our movies: things like beauty, warmth, humanity. This is hardly an indictment of Kanu Behl’s film, which screened at Cannes in 2014 and is now getting a theatrical release here under the unlikely banner of Yash Raj Films. It is simply to say that the universe Titli inhabits is noxious and violent, and it never flinches or softens in its running time of nearly 2 hours. In a press conference last month, Behl warned that this would not be a “cathartic film”. He wasn’t kidding.

In the Shel Silverstein comedy number "A Boy Named Sue", a father tells his son that he gave him a girl’s name because he figured that would force him to “get tough or die”. Perhaps this was the intention behind the naming of Titli, the third of three sons (the explanation in the film is that his mother had wanted a girl, but had to make do with a girl’s name). If so, it seems to have had the opposite effect. As played by Shashank Arora, Titli is soft-voiced and slight of figure, at odds with the garishness and brutality of his surroundings. It’s clear he doesn’t belong, and the stylish upward curl of his hair is a small suggestion of the social climbing he would like to do if his dream of owning a parking space in the mall came true.

But, as Behl seems to suggest, east Delhi is where dreams go to die, and Titli’s plans are rudely squashed when his elder brothers, Vikram (Ranvir Shorey) and Bawla (Amit Sial), discover that he has stolen Rs 3 lakh from them to pay the builder (the money ends up with the police). The calmer Bawla convinces his father (Lalit Behl, the director’s father) and Vikram—who has already displayed his hair-trigger temper in a superbly orchestrated scene earlier—that what they need to do is get Titli married. He won’t run anywhere after that, he reasons. And a girl could also be useful for their business.

That the family business is carjacking is a joke so grim that it’s hardly a joke. There was certainly no laughter—or audible intake of air—when Neelu (Shivani Raghuvanshi), a day into her arranged and reluctant marriage, sees Vikram take a hammer to a poor car salesman’s face. If it wasn’t clear earlier that Titli’s brothers were capable of murder, we know now. It kicks the film into high gear. Neelu tells Titli she wants a divorce, and that she has a secret (married) lover. Titli, still nursing dreams of escape and mall parking ownership, tells her he’ll take her to see him—for a fee.

All this unsavoury business takes place in an environment that seems to inspire such behaviour. To call Titli a kitchen-sink drama would be a disservice to kitchen sinks. Behl designs his east Delhi environs with the same detail that producer Dibakar Banerjee did his west Delhi ones in Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! Every tacky poster on the wall, every mention of sattu chicken, is a clue to the very specific world. The sound design by Pritam Das is even more remarkable —an infernal background score of hacks, coughs, gargles and radio jingles that’s as distasteful as some of the violence on display.

The emotional and physical violence in Titli is wince-inducing, but even more oppressive is the atmosphere of mistrust and desperation that Behl and his co-writer Sharat Katariya build up. The actors appear to breathe in this fetid air and spit it out at the audience. Shorey’s performance in particular is remarkable, both in its brutality and its unpredictability. In the scene where he finds out about the stolen money, he starts beating his brother, then breaks down when Titli calls the house a living hell: He genuinely cannot understand why someone would want to leave their family. He’s the most magnetic thing in the movie, though Raghuvanshi is a blast as Neelu, the pawn who refuses to be played like one.

Titli has the energy and daring of a first film, and a couple of the blind spots of one. Some of the plot turns seem more motivated by screenwriter cleverness than by strict character logic. The visual solutions are also a little trite at times—spiders spinning webs, Titli staring wistfully at a bird in the sky. But Behl shows great maturity in other places. Nine out of 10 directors would have made a big deal of Bawla’s sexuality, but Behl just drops it in matter-of-factly, another unaddressed source of tension in an impossibly compromised family. And there are little touches that add colour to a very grey narrative: a fixed deposit offered as dowry; Neelu saying “marketing” instead of “shopping”.

Unrelentingly grim, morally unmoored, Titli festers like a sore on your consciousness. Yet, from time to time, it’s important that a film like this get under our skin and remind us why we value catharsis so much.

This review appeared in Mint.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Scenes from a film festival: MAMI 2015

Mami 2015 came to a close on 5 November and, with it, the 16-hour days, the hastily grabbed lunches and overpriced coffees, and the frenetic, combative, transportive movie-watching. The drama wasn’t always limited to the screen, which is why my list of memorable moments doesn’t just include scenes from films, but also events that involved those watching it.

A rose for the people of cinema in ‘Taxi’
In Taxi, his third film since he was banned from directing by the Iranian authorities, Jafar Panahi drives a cab around Tehran and records his conversations with a variety of passengers. As with This Is Not A Film and Closed Curtain, what appears to be a documentary is actually something much more complex and playful. Many of his passengers are in on the joke; they see the camera in front, laugh and tell him that they know he’s making a film but that he can’t acknowledge it. The most poignant moment comes when a lawyer friend of Panahi’s places one of the roses she’s holding in front of the camera and says, “This is for the people of cinema.” It’s a small thank you from Panahi to his movie-watching brethren the world over.

Christopher Doyle’s response
The Christopher Doyle masterclass would have been memorable for its sheer weirdness. Yet, when the veteran cinematographer (In The Mood For Love, Hero) wasn’t riffing on drugs or film school’s effects on one’s sex life, he had a lot of practical wisdom to impart. At one point, he explained the importance of reacting to the location instead of changing it. “People keep asking me about my style,” he said. “I don’t have a style. I have a response.”

The convoy in ‘Chauthi Koot’
In Chauthi Koot, director Gurvinder Singh and cinematographer Satya Rai Nagpaul combine as effectively as they did in Anhey Ghorey Da Daan. The stillness of the frame accentuates those moments when Nagpaul’s camera moves swiftly and decisively, always to a purpose. One of the most memorable examples of this is the scene with the convoy of tractors heading towards a village. Some of the men and women start singing a folk song; soon, everyone has joined in and the air is full of cries of Bole so nihaal. The camera, which had been among the singers, is now above them, panning forward rapidly until they’re a blur. The screen, largely bereft of sound and movement till now, is suddenly overflowing with it.

The line for ‘Lobster’
On the first day of Mami, the Juhu screening of The Lobster was cancelled. Though it was rescheduled for later that night, many people pinned their hopes on another screening in Juhu a couple of days later. Those hopes were rudely dashed. The unreserved line went all the way around the room, like a snake intent on eating its tail. Some stood for an hour and a half, and still didn’t make it in. Yorgos Lanthimos, known for his arthouse films Dogtooth and Alps, would have been most gratified to see this.

Walkouts in ‘The Forbidden Room’
The Forbidden Room was very likely the weirdest film of the festival. Directed by Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson, this is an unholy melange of exploitation, schlock and silent cinema—though no amount of description can do justice to the sheer perversity of its oddness—and it was evidently too much for many. I could feel the old couple sitting next to me shifting uneasily in their seats as a beautiful amnesiac flower girl writhed sensually and sang the music of Aswang the vampire. I think they finally gave up when Udo Kier’s character opts for open brain surgery to cure him of his love of human behinds, while a lilting number called The Final Derriere plays in the background.

Jia Zhangke sings ‘Awara Hoon’
Those who found themselves watching Walter Salles’ Jia Zhangke: A Guy From Fenyang were in for a lovely surprise. In the film, Zhangke, one of the most highly regarded Chinese film-makers in the world, recalls that when he was growing up, many of friends turned to petty thievery because of the tough times, but also because they were inspired by a certain film that had released there, Raj Kapoor’s Awara. He then goes on to sing the chorus from Awara Hoon, getting the tune right and all the lyrics wrong.

The first glimpse of Sharmila Tagore in ‘Apur Sansar’
There were a few sentimental sighs from the Bengalis in the audience when Soumitra Chatterjee casually appears on screen right at the beginning of Apur Sansar, the third film in Satyajit Ray’s Apu trilogy. Later, you get a first glimpse of Sharmila Tagore (it was her first time in any film), decked up for her wedding. You could hear the collective intake of breath in the hall.

The entirety of ‘Victoria’
It’s 138 minutes long but it doesn’t have a single cut, so who is to say Victoria isn’t one very long moment—a film in a breath. That this experiment by Sebastian Schipper is a technical and organizational tour de force is hardly worth mentioning; what makes it truly compelling is how deeply one ends up feeling for its impulsive characters.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

The Threshold: She's leaving home

Included in the India Story section at this year’s Mumbai Film Festival is a film that might not have grabbed your attention at first glance. The Threshold, after all, is not a title that suggests a whole lot of action. Neither does a plot précis: this is a two-character film in which a wife decides to leave her husband after decades together. Yet, when you walk out of The Threshold, you feel like you’ve seen something real and raw and honest, attributes which aren’t necessarily present in some of the more heralded Indian films of the festival.

“I don’t think we should keep such a thing from him.” The film opens with this line, spoken by Rinku (Neena Gupta) to her husband, Raj (Rajit Kapoor). The ‘him’ is their son, whom we never see: he’s got married the previous day in the couple’s Tirthan valley home, and has left along with the other guests. Sometime after that, Rinku has told her husband that she is leaving him.

You expect the film to tell you why she took this decision—to at least come up with a third-act revelation which puts you on either character’s side. Instead, director Pushan Kripalani undercuts the audience’s need for a revelation. Few explanations are given, and the most you can do is try and pick up clues from the couple’s fragmented, often inarticulate bickering. In one scene, Raj grabs at Rinku impatiently. His wildness in that instant, and her bowed, submissive body language, carry within them the possibility that he might have been somewhat more violent in the past with her. But you can’t be sure, and The Threshold isn’t telling.

Kripalani, whose first feature this is, has worked as a theatre professional (he’s one of the co-founders of the Industrial Theatre Company) and a cinematographer in the past. The Threshold began with an idea by Kausar Munir (also the film’s lyricist), after which Kripalani, writer Nihaarika Negi and the actors worked for months to create the characters from the ground up. One of the strengths of this Mike Leigh-like process is that Raj and Rinku really do seem like a couple who’ve been arguing for years. They switch from Punjabi to English to Hindi as they correct each other, tear up, snap and seethe. He calls her stupid, stubborn; she uses that quintessential north Indian epithet: nitthalla.

There are comparisons that can be made, not just to Leigh (the celebrated British director whose influence—acknowledged by Kripalani in a conversation I had with him—can be seen in the fade-to-black scene transitions) and Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight but to the master of toxic relationship films, Ingmar Bergman. The Threshold might be seen as a gentler Scenes from a Marriage, though Kripalani pointed out that there’s no specific debt owed to the Swedish director besides the fact that he grew up seeing his films, as any film buff might do.

There’s also the temptation to view this as an extension of Kripalani’s earlier work in theatre. It’s true that the purely visual moments in the film are brief and few: a disoriented Raj dunking himself in the freezing spring; Rinku observing half-amused, half-concerned her husband’s inability to make a decent omelette. Yet, even in the dialogue-heavy scenes, there’s little staginess. Kripalani shoots the film himself, eschewing flash; the shots are never distractingly beautiful, though God knows he has the right scenery for it. He also varies the movement within scenes, and the various degrees of stillness and fidgeting exhibited by the characters becomes expressive in itself.

“I was interested in the transmission of experience, not of information,” Kripalani told me when we spoke. This would certainly not have been possible without actors as fine as Kapoor and Gupta, who convey all the affection, exasperation and weary sync that can only come from decades of living together. Though the film is mostly them disagreeing, their concern for each other provides some of the most touching moments, such as when Raj helps his wife pack her suitcase for what might be the last time. When The Threshold ended, I felt a little pang that I hadn’t gotten to see these characters, both of whom I now felt attached to, in happier times.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The serious business of sleep

 “Have you ever wondered why people sleep on dividers during summers?”

Shaunak Sen’s Cities of Sleep opens with this conversation-stopper. The answer—that gusts of wind from passing vehicles keep the mosquitos at bay—is both reasonable and mind-bogglingly surreal, a combination which recurs time and again in Sen’s film about the unofficial sleep shelters of Delhi. The 75-minute documentary, which will premiere at the Mumbai Film Festival starting next week, is the Delhi-based video artiste and PhD student’s first feature-length effort.

Sen became increasingly interested in the social and political ramifications of sleep while doing his PhD in cinema studies from Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University. His starting point was French philosopher Jacques Rancière’s Nights Of Labor: The Workers’ Dream In Nineteenth-Century France, which re-examines the 1830 Revolution through close readings of worker diaries, newspapers and poetry. “When I first read it, I was very interested in just thinking about the night, and the kind of pressure sleep exerts within urban spaces,” Sen says over the phone from Delhi. “That was the initial hunch. On the basis of this, I started going to night shelters, trying to figure out the landscape of sleeping structures in Delhi.”

When he began in mid-2013, Sen visited the official shelters run by non-governmental organizations. However, he soon became aware of the informal structures—the “cities of sleep” of the title— which cater to the many who cannot be accommodated by the government-sanctioned rain baseras. “The city is almost partitioned into different types of sleep units in the night, especially in the central and Old Delhi areas, where there’s a huge population of daily-wage migrant labour,” says Sen. “Because these people obviously need to sleep, different kinds of industries spring up every night. Some of them have existed for many years and have become like well-oiled machinery.”

The first shelter we see is one of the well-oiled ones—Jamal bhai’s, in Meena Bazaar, Old Delhi. Thousands sleep here every night on cots rented from him. Jamal comes across as a hard-nosed businessman, insisting on payment—or, in a disquieting scene, a musical performance—before allowing someone to sleep in his area. One man asks him for a cot, says he’s poor and will die. “No, you can’t die here,” Jamal deadpans immediately. “That’ll cost me 1,250 bucks.”

At the other end of the sleep spectrum is the video house run by Ranjeet near Loha Pul (the local term for the old two-tiered Yamuna Railway Bridge). Here, people can watch up to three films—or, alternatively, tune out the noise and sleep for 6 hours—for just Rs 10. This unusual set-up is made even more fascinating by the steady stream of philosophy that keeps issuing from Ranjeet, a former rickshaw-puller: pronouncements that range from Sun Tzu-like aphorisms (“If you want to seize control over someone, never let him sleep”) to lines that are some sort of rough poetry (“We ingest the night”). Sen describes Ranjeet’s operation as almost a “commune”; and there is a hippie-ish quality to his shelter, especially when compared to the pragmatic capitalism of Jamal’s area.

Cities Of Sleep could easily have been built around Ranjeet, but Sen had already found himself an even more striking central subject—a shifty wanderer called Shakeel. Sen and his collaborators—associate director Aman Mann, assistant director Sunderram Arjun and co-cinematographer Salim Khan (Sen was the other director of photography)—came across him at Jamal’s camp. Shakeel kept approaching them, insisting that only he could give them the low-down on the night-shelter scene. Eventually, Sen interviewed him and noticed something unusual: Shakeel kept changing the details in his stories. Only one thing remained constant: his obsession with where he would sleep. “His life seemed to be so dependent on different sleep decisions,” Sen says. “It was such a central, dominating narrative over his life that he was the perfect navigating agent for a film about the pressures that sleep exerts.”

Shakeel’s shape-shifting ways become apparent as the film goes on; there’s a revelation about his name that lands like a ton of bricks. He’s an unreliable narrator, and an unlikeable one: The scene where he talks about beating his wife is disturbing not just because of the violence being described but also because he’s seemingly unconcerned about the camera recording what he’s saying. He wanders in and out of the film, an irritable, wheedling malcontent in perpetual search of a good night’s rest, the physical opposite of Ranjeet’s intermittent Zen-like voice-over.

Sen said he can’t stand the sort of documentary film-making that uses close shots of subjects to invoke “empathetic suffering”. “As a political decision, we decided we wouldn’t shoot a single close-up,” he says. That decision was suspended for the scene when Shakeel breaks down in front of his father—the one moment Sen felt his subject was being genuine. The film ends with him convincing the proprietor of a children’s shelter to allow him to spend the night. Seeing him slumped in a chair, lost to the world, I was reminded of something Ranjeet had said earlier in the film: “Poverty means that you can’t choose what wears you down. All that’s left up to you is how many hours you will sleep.” A singular statement, and a singular film about the people who live out its implications.

This piece appeared in Mint Lounge.