Friday, March 20, 2015

Chappie: Review

Neill Blomkamp’s Chappie is one of those frustrating films that leave you confused and jangled, aware that what you’ve witnessed something, but unsure of what that something is. The film shifts between broad comedy and sci-fi, coming-of-age drama and social commentary—not always gracefully, but with a real sense of purpose. Though it appears on the surface to be a mishmash of RoboCop (1987) and A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001), Blomkamp manages to create something that’s one with his film-making style: dark, gritty sci-fi satire, preoccupied with issues of class and race.

Like Blomkamp’s breakthrough feature District 9 (2009), Chappie is set in a South Africa that’s both dystopian and much like the present day. It begins with reports of the world’s first robot police force being deployed in crime-ridden Johannesburg. Produced by a company called Tetravaal (a reference to a 2004 short film by Blomkamp called Tetra Vaal), these lithe, lethal machines are a huge success. Their creator Deon (Dev Patel), though, is working on something even more ambitious. He’s very close to building the world’s first fully conscious robot—a machine that thinks for itself and has opinions.

When Deon’s boss (Sigourney Weaver) shoots down his idea, he honours crazy inventor movie tradition by going ahead and doing what he planned anyway. But just as he’s leaving with the metal carcass of a police robot damaged on duty, he’s kidnapped by a trio of street criminals. The gang, headed by Ninja (played by South African rapper Ninja in a terrific, eye-popping performance), know who he is—they want him to program a robot to fight for them. Reluctantly, Deon installs his AI software in the robot, which comes to “life” much as a child would: as a blank slate. At this point, the film switches from a RoboCop-like satire to a very curious exploration of nature versus nurture, as Chappie—the name Ninja’s wife, Yolandi, gives the machine—tries to make sense of the competing world views of Deon and Ninja.

While it may not have the visual brilliance of last year’s Snowpiercer, Chappie does resemble Bong Joon-ho’s film in the outlandishness of its metaphors and its utter conviction in them. Ultimately, Blomkamp seems to suggest that AI might not be more dangerous than an unstable man with an itchy trigger finger (embodied here by Hugh Jackman’s Vincent). Tonally, Chappie is all over the place: Deon’s in a sci-fi film, Vincent’s testosterone levels suggest a summer blockbuster, while Ninja, Yolandi and Chappie could be out of a gang warfare punk flick like The Warriors (1979) or Jubilee (1978). But the film is also unsettling and darkly funny at times, with a gratifying amount of B-movie cheesiness undercutting its social criticism.

This review appeared in Mint. 

Monday, March 16, 2015

Q&A: Aamir Khan

The general perception of Aamir Khan is of someone who orchestrates his public image to ensure that, in the words of Thom Yorke, there are no alarms and no surprises. Yet it’s also true that the actor has, over the years, publicly voiced his opinion on complicated, at times unpopular, issues. In 2006, he earned the ire of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) by calling for the rehabilitation of those displaced by the construction of the Narmada Dam. ‘Satyamev Jayate’, the TV show he hosts and produces, has never been entirely free of controversy, though it might have done more to spark discussions on taboo issues than just about anything else in recent Indian pop culture. Just last month, he ignited a minor storm by expressing his personal distaste for the AIB roast. (He landed on the right side on public opinion—or at least liberal Twitterati opinion—when he expressed sympathy for NH10’s censorship woes). We met Khan—a wildly successful star who’s also been involved in projects as seemingly unsaleable as Raakh (1989), 1947 Earth (1998), Taare Zameen Par (2007) and Peepli Live (2010)—ahead of his birthday on 14 March. Edited excerpts from the interview:

You’re turning 50 this week. A lot of people who’ve grown up watching you are about to feel the passage of time. 
Yeah, it’s around the corner. I feel the same, actually. I don’t really think of myself as 50. I’m not thinking of this as an age to stop and think about things.

It’s also been 42 years since you first entered the industry… 
Well, technically speaking, yes, because I did my first film (Yaadon Ki Baaraat) when I was eight. But I don’t really count that. I count from Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak, which was 1988, so that’s 27 years. Though if you count my years as an assistant, it would be 30 years.

Do you think you entered the film industry at an exciting time? Or would you have preferred another era? 
The only time I can say that would have been a very exciting one to be in the film industry was the 1950s. You had very talented minds working—great poets, filmmakers, actors, musicians. I think the creative talent at that time was of a very high calibre. But I’m happy with the time I came in. For me, as an audience, the late 1970s to late 1980s was the worst period. So me coming in at that time—not only me, but lot of other young people who felt that the last 10 years had not been very good, who were not excited about the work that was happening—we actually had to swim against the tide.

Was there that sense of wanting to work in a new way, trying to break the formula? 
Oh yes. Because I knew that my sensibility was very different from what was happening around me. The kind of work I wanted to do, the kind that excited me, was not being done. Even the manner in which people were working was very different from the way I wanted to work. So it’s been a constant journey for me, swimming against the tide. Now the tide seems to be turning a bit...

Why do you say that? 
Well, I think more and more films are being made which are of my sensibility. There are younger minds, a lot of young talent, which is coming up with stuff that’s challenging, unusual, different. I think audiences are changing as well. Earlier, what was considered mainstream was a very narrow path. Almost anything can be mainstream now. There are no rules anymore.

Was there any particular point at which your career dramatically changed course? 
I think for me the defining moment was somewhere in 1989. My first film (Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak) released in April 1988. I took on some eight or nine films in the next six months. Within a year of my first film releasing and becoming a big success, I was perhaps the unhappiest person around. I used to go home and weep because I couldn’t deal with what was happening around me. And when I was going through that miserable time of doing work I was unhappy with, I swore to myself that I was not going to do another film unless I was totally happy with it. So I stopped signing films.

My films began releasing and they were bombing. I remember thinking, this is the end of my career. I was being called a one-film wonder, and rightly so. At that time, I got a phone call from Mahesh Bhatt who, at the time, was at the peak of his professional life. That call was like a drowning man being offered a life jacket. I went to meet him and he narrated the story. I didn’t like it. I asked him if I could think about it overnight. I desperately needed to sign that film, but for that I would have had to compromise with my heart. That was a difficult night for me. The next day, I met him and said, ‘I can’t do the film. I know I’m just a young kid who doesn’t know as much about film-making as you do, but I didn’t like the script.’ He was very sweet about it. What I’m trying to say is, if I’d compromised that day, I think I would have compromised all through my career.

Did that script get made into a film? 
I don’t think so. I remember Mumtaz was supposed to be in it. But what I did do with Bhatt saab one year later was Dil Hai Ke Manta Nahin (1991). It kind of transpired after that initial conversation. He asked me what I wanted to do. I said there’s a story that I really liked—an American film called Roman Holiday (1953). He said there was an earlier film called It Happened One Night (1934), which is often considered to have inspired Roman Holiday, and why don’t I read the script? I did, and liked it.

How did you get involved with Dangal
Nitesh (Tiwari; director of 2011’s Chillar Party and 2014’s Bhoothnath Returns) came to me and narrated the script. He met me before the release of Dhoom 3 (2013). I just loved the script, but I initially thought I’d do it later because my character was a little older, the father of two grown daughters. So I thought maybe I’d do this film five years from now. But I liked the script so much that I thought, what the hell, I’ll do it now.

I read that you’d be playing ages 19 through 55. 
Nineteen is just a small flashback to when my character used to be a wrestler. The three ages I do play are late 20s, then 40s and then 50s. It’s the first time I’m playing a character in his 40s; the oldest I’ve played before that is in Dhobi Ghat, which is late 30s. But the age of a character per se is irrelevant. When a character excites me, it’s up to me to try and become that age. I did 3 Idiots despite the fact that the character was 18; in fact, that was the only reason I wouldn’t have wanted to do it, because it’s an absurd thing to try and play an 18-year-old.

You recently said in a press conference that you favoured a ratings system over film censorship. Do you think such a system might actually come about in the near future? 
I think it should be possible. From the little knowledge that I have, there has been a process towards a ratings system in the ministry (of information and broadcasting) for the last few years. Strictly speaking, the censor board is not supposed to censor films, only certify them. The members actually cannot tell you what to remove, they can only rate it as an adult film.

And yet, scenes are removed. NH10 is reportedly being released with nine cuts, even though it was given an ‘A’ certificate. 
I can’t comment on that. But the rating system right now is unclear. I have to see a film for myself before I can take my child for it. It’s helpful if you have ages like 12 and above, 18 and above. I would really like to see us moving towards that. I remember, a few years back, I had attended a meeting, which the I&B ministry had arranged for the CBFC (Central Board of Film Certification) staff and some film people. At the time, we’d discussed the ratings system, so I’m pretty sure it’s gone ahead.

Do you see any similarities between the protests against the AIB roast and the ones targeting PK?
 Actually, I was not in India when the protests happened for the AIB thing, so I won’t comment on that. Regarding PK, we’ve been through a process, there’s a government body which has given our film the certificate to release. Thereafter, if anyone has a problem, they’re free to; in a democracy, you can look at a film and say, hey, this shouldn’t have been shown to me, or the general public, or should have been banned. You can go to court, write to the ministry. But physically force it to stop is not fair and that was what happened with PK.

You released the trailer of Shonali Bose’s Margarita with a Straw. Are you or Kiran planning to be involved with the film in some way? 
Not officially. I think the team that’s made the film has done a wonderful job and the producers have been really supportive. Kiran and I happened to see the film and we just loved it. So I’m supporting the film very strongly; it’s a small film and I want to make sure that as many people as possible have the pleasure of seeing it. It’s one of the finest films to come out of India in recent times.

This interview appeared in Mint.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

NH10: Review

Have we entered Bollywood’s long dark night of the soul? First there was Ugly, as miserable and cruel as any Hindi film in recent memory. A few months later there was Badlapur, the bleakness of which was only partly alleviated by the generosity of its parting gesture. And now, fresh from a close shave with the censors (there were nine nicks), comes Navdeep Singh’s NH10, a film that will put you off highway driving, helping strangers and visiting Haryana.

“This city is a growing child. He’s liable to jump at times,” a Gurgaon police officer tells Meera (Anushka Sharma) and Arjun (Neil Bhoopalam) when they go to report a barely averted attack on her car when she’s driving from a party alone at night. This statement is a warning shot: If the city’s like this, imagine what the country will be like. Arjun, possibly out of guilt for not being there with his wife when the incident took place, books a private villa for the two of them. They set off on National Highway 10, which runs from New Delhi to Punjab, and passes through Haryana. A while later, they make a pit stop, and we’re handed a second warning sign. Meera sees the word “whore” scrawled in Hindi on the restroom door. She attempts to erase it—the smallest instance of city dwellers trying to change the natural order of things. The same word will return later in the film, by which time all illusions of law, order and decency would have been lost.

As the couple are about to set off, they see a girl who had tearfully approached Meera earlier, being dragged off by a group of men. Arjun tries to talk to the man clutching her hair and is told that she’s his sister; he persists and is slapped. Later, he sees the SUV they drove off in on the highway and follows them, despite Meera’s protestations. By the time he realizes that these are extremely dangerous men, they’ve witnessed a double murder and inadvertently caused one themselves. Soon, they’re on the run, lost somewhere in the desert scrub off NH10, hunted by individuals who have no fear of the law and no care for anything except some vague idea of “honour” and “duty”.

What makes NH10 more than just an unrelentingly tense thriller—though that would be enough—is the way Singh keeps bringing everything back to the idea of deeply ingrained patriarchy. Everything that goes wrong in the film stems from this: Arjun’s hurt pride; the honour killing of the sister and her lover; even offhand comments about skewed sex ratios (and lest we dismiss sexism as a “rural issue”, there’s an early scene in which Meera is at the receiving end of snide comments at work). By rooting the film in the kind of reality that Bollywood would normally pay not to have on screen, Singh creates the scariest sort of horror film: the kind you can imagine yourself being involved in. Open your eyes, NH10 seems to say. This is your country. This could be your nightmare.

The violence which almost caused the censors to ban the film is still there, and very disturbing indeed. Yet, it doesn’t feel like a put-on. There’s no flamboyance to it; it isn’t movie violence—which is why I have a small issue (oblique, spoiler) with the last-gasp attempt to feed the audience’s need for retribution. It may have been dramatically necessary—every nerve in my body was crying out for it—but it was also slightly implausible. Still, this is a minor quibble. Seven and a half years ago, Singh directed his first film, the excellent Chinatown remake Manorama Six Feet Under. Since then, he hasn’t had a single release. All the more impressive then, that his return is with a film this uncompromised and unsparing. All that’s left to do is praise the cast: Bhoopalam as Arjun; Darshan Kumaar as the leader of the thugs; Deepti Naval, playing against type in a cameo; and most of all Sharma, who holds everything together even as she threatens to fall apart.

This review appeared in Mint. 

Monday, March 9, 2015

Shadowy Past: Badlapur and Indian Noir

Revisiting Paul Schrader’s seminal 1972 essay "Notes On Film Noir" a couple of days ago, I came across a line I hadn’t paid attention to in earlier readings. In the section on the stylistics of noir, the screenwriter of Taxi Driver writes: “Compositional tension is preferred to physical action.” One imagines Sriram Raghavan, Bollywood’s most dedicated purveyor of noir, has these words tattooed on his arm. Raghavan’s set-pieces are marked as much by the suddenness of the violence as they are by his willingness to delay the pay-off and build the surroundings within which the action takes place. Film writer Phillip Lopate once remarked that any architecture student should be able to sketch the house in Satyajit Ray’s Charulata after watching the movie. On a less exalted level, I’d hazard that a careful viewer, after seeing the one-take gunfight in Raghavan’s Agent Vinod (2012) or the train sequence in his Johnny Gaddaar (2007), would be able to recreate them from memory, such is the film-maker’s control and attention to detail.

Schrader goes on to argue that noirs are marked by “measured pacing, restrained anger and oppressive compositions”. All these qualities are at the heart of Badlapur, Raghavan’s third neo-noir after Ek Hasina Thi (2004) and Johnny Gaddaar, which released in theatres on 20 February. Like Ek Hasina Thi, Badlapur is a revenge film, but one that subverts audience expectations until the lines between antagonist and protagonist, hunter and prey, are erased completely. That the film isn’t messing around is evident in the opening moments, when a child is tossed from a car and his mother shot. But the truly daring twist arrives imperceptibly, as we find our sympathies shifting ever so slowly from Raghu (Varun Dhawan), who embarks on a revenge that will take 20 years to come to fruition, to Liak (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), the killer of his wife and child.

Badlapur isn’t a straight-up noir: The screen isn’t shrouded in shadow, there’s no fatalistic voice-over, and Raymond Chandler’s rule about someone who “is not himself mean” going down mean streets is soon discarded. Instead, what we get is a sprinkling of noir themes and tropes: the pervasive fog of bad luck; the idea that once fate plays a hand, there’s not much you can do about it; a progressively dark and rainy second half; a femme fatale, played by Huma Qureshi, who wanders in and out of the narrative; the unravelling mental state of Raghu and the gradual fatalism of Liak. One might consider it a distant cousin of neo-noirs like Michael Mann’s Collateral (2004) and David Cronenberg’s A History Of Violence (2005)—films that explore the effects of violence on aggressor and victim, perpetrator and bystander.

Raghavan, one of India’s most cine-literate directors, would be the first to point to a long, if slim, tradition of noir film-making in the country. The first Indian noirs appeared as the 1940s were ending. Kamal Amrohi’s Mahal (1949), stunningly photographed by Josef Wirsching, was a romantic noir in the vein of Otto Preminger’s Laura (1944). Dev Anand, surprisingly stoic, appeared in several noir films, including Guru Dutt’s Baazi (1951) and Jaal (1952), Chetan Anand’s Taxi Driver (1954) and Raj Khosla’s C.I.D. (1956). Many of these were photographed by V.K. Murthy, whose unique feel for light and shade resulted in lush, dramatic compositions (when Dutt abandoned the crime noir, Murthy’s presence behind the camera meant that this signature shadowy look carried over into his other films). But once colour took over, Indian noirs dried up. Bollywood didn’t have the appetite for gloom and world-weariness that was so central to the genre; also, the advent of the Angry Young Man called for a more proactive approach to life’s woes.

In the latter half of the 1980s, there was a revival of home-grown noir. Aditya Bhattacharya’s Raakh (1989) and Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s Parinda (1989) gained tremendously from their shadowy look and seedy, amoral atmosphere. Ram Gopal Varma’s Satya picked up where Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay! (1988) left off, establishing a new template for the Mumbai crime noir. Anurag Kashyap made his noir pastiche No Smoking (2007); Vishal Bhardwaj borrowed from the genre for Maqbool (2003), Kaminey (2009) and 7 Khoon Maaf (2011), as did Reema Kagti for Talaash (2012). Dibakar Banerjee’s Shanghai (2012) was a throwback to the political noirs of Alan J. Pakula and Sidney Lumet. Navdeep Singh’s Manorama Six Feet Under (2007) was a clever take on Chinatown (1974), while Rajat Kapoor’s Mithya (2008) was that rare breed: a noir comedy. Last year, cinematographer Rajeev Ravi—who has shot most of Anurag Kashyap’s films—made Njan Steve Lopez, an existentialist black comedy slacker noir that was too spaced out to be much good but was, at the very least, an encouraging sign that Indian film-makers were still looking to take this genre to unexpected places. Will Kashyap and Ravi tip their forthcoming Bombay Velvet towards the dark side? Considering that the film is reportedly soaked in jazz, one can only hope that it’s wrapped in shadows as well.

This piece appeared in Mint Lounge.

Coffee Bloom: Review

If Coffee Bloom wasn’t a serious film about some very tangled emotions, it might have been a neat little comedy about what it is like to have a name like Dev Anand (if you aren’t the Dev Anand). Imagine the sheer difficulty of going through life being addressed as barkhurdar, watching people toss imaginary mufflers over their shoulders and doing little sideways dances. "Gata Rahe Mera Dil" would be completely ruined for you. The horror, the horror.

Manu Warrier’s Coffee Bloom has just the one Dev Anand imitation. This comes courtesy Srinivas (Mohan Kapoor), an excitable bear of a man who’s married to Anika (Sugandha Garg), whose tortured romantic history with Dev (Arjun Mathur) is the fulcrum around which the film revolves. Srinivas, who is unaware of their relationship and its nasty ending, hires Dev—who is about ready to renounce the world and become a sanyasi—to work on his coffee plantation in Coorg. Another thing Srinivas doesn’t know is that the plantation was Dev’s ancestral property till he sold it. So we have plenty of reason to suspect Dev’s motives for accepting his offer. Will he try to win back Anika? Destroy their marriage? Get back his plantation? A little bit of everything, really.

After a melodramatic start (Dev’s mother tells him that he isn’t worthy of scattering her ashes, before going and dying in the next scene), Coffee Bloom finds its rhythm when Dev moves to Coorg and starts talking to Anika again. The who-hurt-whom-and-how of their relationship is revealed in gradual flashbacks, but the details aren’t important: Dev’s inability to shake off his bitterness and Anika’s compliance with his mood swings and tantrums tell you everything you need to know.

Coffee Bloom isn’t the most exciting of films, but it has a slow-burn intensity that owes a lot to Mathur and Garg’s carefully calibrated performances and Kapoor’s exuberant, pressure-releasing one (his enthusiasm is simultaneously irritating and endearing). Yogesh Jaani’s cinematography is perfectly pretty, but I wish the director and the cinematographer had worked out a way to inject a little visual excitement into the scenes. This is Warrier’s first feature, which might account for a couple of blind spots: too much holy-earth-karma blather on the voice-over, a bland soundtrack, touristy photography. Yet there are also moments when Coffee Bloom’s characters access deep reserves of hurt and despair, which is when the film’s bruised, beating heart is laid bare.

This piece appeared in Mint.

Against the Sun: Review

If you’ve seen one film about crash survivors on a raft lost at sea, you’ve pretty much seen them all. There’s a bad-luck checklist that these films tend to tick off, starting with sunburn and the dangers of drinking saltwater, and moving on to bigger obstacles like hurricanes and shark attacks. Brian Falk’s Against The Sun, based on a true story about three US navy airmen who drifted over 1,000 miles on a raft after their plane went down over the Pacific in 1942, doesn’t have any new tricks up its sleeve. But it does execute the old ones well.

We first see Harold (Garret Dillahunt), Tony (Tom Felton) and Gene (Jake Abel) in their bomber jet, just as they’re starting to lose their bearings and run out of fuel. Harold, the pilot and highest-ranking member of the crew, manages a scrambled but successful water landing. The three men make it to the raft unscathed, but without food, water or medicines. They pin their hopes on the rescue mission—“They’ve got procedures for this,” Gene confidently tells Tony—but the plane that appears the following morning either doesn’t spot them or isn’t looking for them at all. Harold takes charge, organizing lookout schedules and fashioning a crude map and sea anchor in an attempt to steer them towards where there could be land. Resentments flare up, mostly between gruff Harold and short-tempered Gene, but the film never gets emotionally messy.

Against The Sun has the immense bad luck of releasing a couple of months after Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken, which had an extended sequence—also based on a true story—in which three American airmen drift on a raft for weeks in the ocean. It’s likely that most of those who saw Unbroken will give Falk’s film a miss. Yet those who don’t might be surprised at how affecting the unforced camaraderie of the three characters is after a while. Dillahunt, so effective in the HBO series Deadwood that after his Jack McCall was killed off, he was brought back as an entirely different character, gives his square-jawed leader unexpected moments of vulnerability. Abel manages the difficult feat of slouching and looking cool in a raft, while Felton (Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter films) is very moving as the faint-hearted Tony. Unexpectedly, given that he’s British, Felton also looks and sounds like Aaron Paul from Breaking Bad. Good as he is, I would’ve paid a fortune to see Jesse Pinkman on that raft, shouting “Yeah science, bitch” at passing sharks.

This piece appeared in Mint.