Monday, May 25, 2015

Mad Men: Eight great pitches

After eight years and seven seasons, the last Mad Men episode goes on air this Sunday. If the thought of the series ending sends you into an inconsolable tailspin, know that you’re not alone. Even with AMC cutting the final season in half, the end is finally here, and millions of people will probably be wiping their eyes (or, if it’s like The Sopranos finale, scratching their heads) come Sunday night. And though it’ll leave a hole that no amount of binge watching or martini drinking will likely fill, it’s heartening that this show about a New York ad firm and its mercurial creative head, Don Draper, is going out as strong as it is. We offer our own tribute with this list of defining pitches from the show’s incredible run.

Lucky Strike: First Time Around
In the first episode, pitching to a Lucky Strike team rattled by a Federal Trade Commission ruling that forbids tobacco companies from advertising that cigarettes are safe, Don Draper seems to lose his train of thought. Pete Campbell jumps in but makes little headway, and the clients are almost out of the door when, for the first time, we see Don pull an idea out of mid-air. He asks the owner how his cigarettes are made and stops him when he hears the magic word: toasted. One of the clients protests that their competitors make cigarettes the same way. “No,” Don says, “everybody else’s tobacco is poisonous. Lucky Strike’s is toasted.”

Kodak: The Benchmark
While it was clear that Don Draper was an uncommonly good pitchman, clinching evidence arrived in the first season’s last episode, “The Wheel”. The pitch is for the Kodak slide projector, which the company is calling ‘the wheel’. Don has a more evocative moniker in mind – the carousel. “It lets us travel the way a child travels,” he says, a transported look on his face. “Around and around and back home again to a place where we know we are loved.” The slides in the projector are of Don and his family; it’s the first of many times the series will link a pitch to a character’s personal life. The pitch is so powerful that Weiner doesn’t bother to show us the executives’ decision: Duck Phillips simply wraps things up with “Good luck at your next meeting.” The scene set the standard for future pitches and marked Mad Men out as a show that had it in it to be an all-time great.

Belle Jolie: A Foot in the Door
Belle Jolie is a significant campaign because this is the first time the series introduces the idea of Peggy as a potential copywriter. Along with the other secretaries, she is included in an informal trail session for the lipstick brand. Afterwards, she remarks that the wastepaper bin full of smeared tissues looks like a “basket of kisses” and floats the idea that every woman wants a particular shade of lipstick she can call her own. These remarks make their way back to Don, who recognises their potential and asks Peggy to write some copy. Although Peggy is nowhere near the final presentation, it’s her ideas that Don sells. The meeting also shows how Don’s talent and arrogance allows him to bludgeon his way past reluctant clients. When the Belle Jolie execs demonstrate resistance to the idea, Don suggests that they end the meeting. “You’re a non-believer,” he tells him. In his mind, his clients are supplicants and he’s there to show them the light. It’s one of the many complexes the show will shatter in due course of time.

London Fog: Raincoats in the Closet 
In the season 3 premiere, “Out of Town”, Don and Sterling Cooper’s art director Sal travel to Baltimore to meet raincoat manufacturers London Fog. There, Don discovers by accident what viewers of the show have long known: that Sal is gay. Next day, at the client’s, Don gives no indication that this is playing on his mind. On the flight back, however, he turns to Sal and asks him to answer something truthfully. Yet, instead of quizzing Sal about his double life (Don leads one himself), he pitches him a risqué idea for London Fog that ends with the words “Limit your exposure.” Sal nods, understanding the import of Don’s warning. Unfortunately, this will not be enough to save his job at the firm.

Hilton: What about the Moon?
Hilton might be the first time Don turns on his persuasive powers full blast and still can’t impress the client. Conrad Hilton and Don have been building up a personal rapport for a while; Don sees the hotelier as a sort of father figure and vice versa (Conrad actually tells him “You’re like a son”). The eventual campaign, which promises the thrill of exotic destinations with the comforts of home, seems to be a winner, but Conrad wants “Hilton on the moon”, something he’d mentioned in passing over the phone. Don hates losing, but his reception of Conrad’s criticism indicates a deeper, personal hurt. The older man’s statements – “I’m deeply disappointed”; “What do you want from me, love?” – too seem like they’re coming from a difficult-to-please father.

Hershey’s: Out of the Past
By the end of season 6, Don’s self-loathing and multiple inner demons have left him a shell of his former self. Presenting to Hershey’s, he seems to have pulled himself together, spinning a story about family, memory and chocolate as the “currency of affection”. It’s “carousel” all over again – until it isn’t. Having seemingly sealed the deal, Don decides, to his colleagues’ horror, to tell the Hershey execs about his childhood in a brothel and how one of the girls there gave him Hershey bars in exchange for picking pockets while her customers were occupied. This revelation not only loses the firm the account, it also costs Don his job and completes his fall from grace.

Burger Chef: Full Circle
With Don gone, Peggy is made creative head. He’s hired back eventually but has to work under his former protégé, leading to some understandable friction. But they soon patch up and when Don realises that it would mean a lot for Peggy’s career, he hands the Burger Chef pitch which he was supposed to close over to her. This is fitting, as this was Peggy’s campaign from the start. She nails it the same way Don would – taking her time, telling a story, using something in the public sphere (the moon landing) for added resonance. It’s the fitting culmination to her journey from secretary to consummate adwoman.

SC&P West: Old Dogs, Old Tricks
Arriving in episode 11 of the last season, Don’s last pitch (unless the final episode allows him another) is an act of desperation. Instead of a product, he’s pitching himself and his colleagues to McCann, who are planning to absorb Sterling Cooper & Partners. They ask for time with Jim Hobart, head of McCann, and Don tries to pitch ‘SC&P West’ as a division of the advertising giant, yet servicing its own clients out in California. Jim isn’t having any of it. Stopping Don in mid-flow, he tells his audience, “I don’t think you understand what’s happened. It’s done. You’ve passed the test.” And like that, SC&P is no more.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Tanu Weds Manu: Returns: Review

Anand L. Rai’s Tanu Weds Manu wasn’t a great film, but it did introduce audiences to a Kangana Ranaut who seemed comfortable in her own skin instead of neurotic or doomed in love. Three years later, Queen improved on this template in every way. This left Rai with a problem for his sequel: Kangana was India’s sweetheart now, but Tanu wasn’t a very likeable character. The solution he offers is pure Bollywood in both its simplicity and its faith in the audience’s willingness to be deluded. By introducing a new character who looks exactly like Tanu, but is nice, he ensures that the audience gets both Tanu and Kangana.

The film opens with Tanu (Ranaut) and Manu (R Madhavan) getting married, which is where the earlier film had left us. Barely have the opening credits finished, that we’re four years in the future, in England, with their marriage on the rocks. In a scene so bizarre that I thought it was a dream sequence, the two of them have some sort of couples therapy session with a team of doctors in a mental institution. Manu gets worked up and is dragged away and committed; Tanu returns to her home in Kanpur.

I’d barely recovered from that scene when Manu, now back in Delhi, sights a much younger, short-haired, Haryanvi-accented version of Tanu called Kusum and, without as much as a thought for what Freud might say about his inclinations, promptly falls for her. Tanu, meanwhile, renews her acquaintance with Raja Awasthi (Jimmy Shergill), her tempestuous suitor from the previous film. So far, so much suspension of disbelief, but when Manu finds out that Raja is betrothed to Kusum, I gave up on anything making the slightest sense and settled back to see if I could enjoy myself.

Surprisingly, I could. It was nice to see everyone from the first film: Rajendra Gupta as Tanu’s harried father; Swara Bhaskar as her friend, Payal; Deepak Dobriyal as Manu’s friend, Pappi. Shergill, whose brides the unassuming Madhavan keeps stealing, lands his sighs and rueful wisecracks with remarkable comic timing. And Rai makes sure that things keep getting crazier and crazier. After a sequence of events that would be difficult to reconstruct if I wanted to, Manu and Pappi find themselves about to be burnt alive. Five minutes later, they’re dancing with their would-be murderers to “Banno Tera Swagger Laage Sexy”. Only in a Hindi movie.

Even if you don’t care about all the implausibility, there are a couple of blind spots. Rai cannot seem to shake his conviction that, when done by the right people, stalking is the same thing as courting (at least it isn’t as blatant as his last film Raanjhanaa, which raised stalking to an art form). The subplot involving Pappi and the girl he loves is just an excuse to bring Payal into the story, while the character of the creepy tenant who falls for Tanu exists mainly as a showcase for the talented Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub, who deserves bigger and better. Also, given the unpredictability of all that’s come before, the ending is pretty much what you expect it’ll be.

The Kusum/Tanu gambit may be far-fetched but it does allow Ranaut to demonstrate what a confident actress she’s become. Her Kusum could have been a purely comic creation, but Ranaut doesn’t push the accent more than she has to, relying instead on the straight-talking sweetness of the character to shine through. And as Tanu, she starts off brittle and mean and ends up in full Meena Kumari mode, walking drunk through the streets at night with "Ja Ja Ja Ja Bewafa" (from the 1954 film Aar Paar) playing on the soundtrack. She’s the reason audiences will flock to see Tanu Weds Manu: Returns. She’s also the main reason the film is—even at its silliest—watchable throughout.

This review appeared in Mint.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road: Review

Four years ago, it was announced that George Miller would be directing a new Mad Max movie with Tom Hardy in the lead. The Australian director had been trying to revive the franchise since 1998, first with Mel Gibson, star of the first three movies, then with Heath Ledger. Many must have thought Miller foolish to persevere, especially since he hadn’t made an action movie in years (his most recent ventures were Babe: Pig In The City, Happy Feet and its sequel). Several of them presumably told him to quit. Thank God he didn’t.

At 70, Miller has directed the most spectacular action movie of the last few years. Mad Max: Fury Road is a visceral jolt to the senses. One need only compare its pounding action scenes to the staid combat in the recent Avengers sequel to see how a skilled director can bring grandeur and imagination to blockbuster moviemaking. The first extended action sequence in Fury Road starts about 30 minutes in and seems to go on forever. But unlike most recent Hollywood action movies, you actually want it to keep going. It’s one of those rare moments when the pulpiest of material is transformed into a euphoric wave that washes over the audience, sweeping them from crescendo to crescendo.

At the start of the film, Max, a road warrior in a post-apocalyptic Australian wasteland, is captured by the War Boys, an army of “half-dead” who subsist on human blood transfusions. Though he is kept chained up, Max is offered a small window of hope when the evil leader Immortan Joe sends his War Boys out to rescue a “War Rig” gone rogue. One War Boy, Nux (Nicholas Hoult), straps Max to the front of his vehicle so he can keep on receiving blood.

The War Rig in question is being commandeered by Furiosa (Charlize Theron). She has spirited away Immortan’s five wives—breeders, as he calls them—who are fleeing because they cannot bear to be treated as commodities and don’t want their babies to grow up to be crazy warlords. The War Boys catch up and attack, but Furiosa, a warrior as fearsome as Max, manages to fend them off. After the dust has quite literally settled, Max sets himself free and, after some initial hiccups, agrees to help the women reach their destination, a fabled Green Place.

Among the many crazy stories associated with this film’s production, my favourite is how Eve Ensler, author of The Vagina Monologues, ended up a consultant on the film, providing Miller information on the treatment of women in war zones. In an interview to Time, she described Fury Road as a “feminist action film”. Incredible as this may sound, it’s true. Not only does Theron kick as much ass as Hardy, she is the emotional centre of the film. The film’s sexual politics may be simplistic, but for a genre that caters almost exclusively to male teenagers, it is a refreshing change.

During one action sequence, Max is aiming at an incoming enemy vehicle. He fires and misses. He aims, reconsiders, and hands the gun over to Furiosa. She rests it on his shoulder, shoots and hits the target. Fury Road has been getting some heat from (male) commentators who feel that Max has been made a supporting character in his own film, but this is my favourite moment: when the balance of power gracefully shifts from the person whose name is in the title to the person best qualified for the job.

This review appeared in Mint. 

Sound and fury: Gurvinder Singh's Chauthi Koot

In 2011, Gurvinder Singh made a splash with his debut film Anhey Ghorey Da Daan, which premiered at the Venice International Film Festival and won three National Awards. Splash may not be the right word, though—the film was as mysterious and elusive as a ripple in a pond, or a shiver down a spine. His new film, Chauthi Koot (The Fourth Direction), adapted from two stories by Sahitya Akademi award-winner Waryam Singh Sandhu, takes place in a Punjab that’s light years from the mustard fields of Yashraj Films or jocular local hits like Jatt And Juliet. It premieres on 15 May in the Un Certain Regard section at the Cannes Film Festival, the second Indian film besides Neeraj Ghaywan’s Masaan to feature in the 68th edition of the festival. Singh talks about making a film on the militancy years in Punjab, and how cable TV helped popularize his first film in the state.

Chauthi Koot is set in Punjab during the time of the Khalistan movement. Do you have any memories from back then?
I was in Delhi then. I was about 10 years old. At the time of Indira Gandhi’s assassination, we were in school. Going back in the bus that day, a teacher looked at me and said, “These Sikhs should be taught a lesson.” A schoolteacher saying that! That remark I can’t forget.

What drew you to Waryam Singh’s stories?
I’d read Waryam’s work before. I think his short stories are some of the finest written, and not just in Punjab. It just so happened that after Anhey Ghorey Da Daan, I picked up this book (Chauthi Koot, 1998). I was already thinking about making a film on another story of his, set during the time of militancy. But I knew he’d written more about that period. He himself was affected by it. He was a schoolteacher in a place called Sur Singh. He used to write in the Punjab press against the movement, so he had a lot of threats from the militants and had to go settle in Jalandhar.

He wrote about a curious meeting the two of you had in Canada.
I’d met him in Toronto, where Anhey Ghorey was being screened. I was on the stage post-screening, and strange comments were coming—why did you do this, we didn’t understand the film. I think he got restless because he got up and gave a speech for 5 minutes and then everybody was silent.

His writing has a similar quality to ‘Anhey Ghorey Da Daan’, in that the atmosphere he evokes informs, even drives, the plot…
In a film, you could have one level of narrative going on, but then the mood is creating its own narrative, or the off-screen is creating its own narrative. Art is not just about what you see, but what you don’t show—how it evokes what is unseen. It’s easy to show things, but does it evoke anything outside that? I think that’s the difference between good cinema and ordinary cinema.

People say that my first film is esoteric, abstract. At least in the first viewing they don’t get the links between the characters. Of course, the links are very clear in my head. I want to make a film like a piece of music, which changes depending on the number of times you listen to it.

Did you work on the screenplay yourself?
Yes. I like to adapt. I’m not a writer, but I’m a film-maker and I can imagine how it’ll unfold on screen. And I don’t think I want to leave it up to anyone else to imagine that. Writing a screenplay is writing the film, in a way. And then when you start to shoot the film, it takes a totally different dimension.

My teacher Mani Kaul used to say that what you shoot should have nothing to do with what you write in your script, and what you edit should have nothing to do with what you’ve shot. He said you write scripts to basically raise funding. He used to joke about how he submitted Siddeshwari (1990) to Films Division as a two-page script. He was told that it was too short, so he asked his secretary to type it again with three-line spacing, which made it 10 pages long.

A key element of Anhey Ghorey was its sound mix. Chauthi Koot’s trailer suggests that similar care has been taken in this film. How do you approach this part of the process?
The relationship between the image on the screen and the sound that’s on screen and off, that is for me the most fascinating aspect of cinema. Not many people pay attention to sound, cinema is largely seen as a visual medium. In popular cinema they hardly use any ambient sound. (Robert) Bresson used to use a very beautiful term: relay. He said that like a racer passes a baton to another, the image passes the baton on to the sound, and then back.

The process starts with the script. What you’ve written gives you an idea of what all possible sounds it can generate in the scene. There’s a scene in the film with a procession. The script will say just that—but you know there’ll be chatting and singing, the sound of the tractors and the passing traffic. Sound has to become music, and vice versa. That’s what I told my composer. If it’s music, then it imposes its medium on the cinema.

You and cinematographer Satya Rai Nagpaul have developed a very specific visual aesthetic over the course of two films. Tell us about your collaboration.
I don’t discuss too much of visual scheme beforehand. There’s not much to discuss before we go to the location. We work very spontaneously once we’re there. A lot of directors do storyboards but I don’t use them at all. That’s the worst, they just kill the spontaneity.

With Satya, I normally discuss the lighting, which is the most important thing for me; precise movements and composition we discuss once we take the shot. Now we have a good sync, so he’s able to anticipate what kind of composition I’m looking at, or what will be the angle of the shot. But normally I give him the input of where to put the camera and his job is to create that mood and feeling with light. You can say that I do a sketch and he’s the painter.

Do you show him films as reference points?
I normally don’t show much, but sometimes I’ll share a film or two. Like before this film I shared Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Once Upon A Time In Anatolia with him. I feel spiritually close to Ceylan, among the contemporary film-makers. For Anhey Ghorey, I showed him a Sri Lankan film, The Forsaken Land. That film opens with a pre-dawn sequence, which is how my film was also going to begin.

Are you working with a non-professional cast, as you did in your first film?
It’s a mix. This time, the casting was done in Amritsar, so there are a lot of people from the theatre scene there. Amritsar has a very rich theatre tradition actually; it doesn’t travel much, but within Amritsar there are lots of theatre groups, with some very talented people.

Four years after its release, how is Anhey Ghorey viewed in Punjab?
The film has had a lot of influence in Punjab, especially on the young film-makers. Young people are actually learning film-making from it. After it released, it got on to the cable TV circuit. They show it on cable every week. It even shows in the villages. In fact, the people I worked with in the film told me: “When we were making it, we didn’t know the story. We didn’t know what to tell people, so we had to see it again and again. Now we understand the film totally.”

This piece appeared in Mint Lounge.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Silence speaks loudest

The European Union Film Festival, which started on 8 May, is celebrating its 20th year in India. Films from 21 member nations will be screened, ranging from recent releases to titles a few years old. The current edition’s line-up is the strongest we’ve seen in a long time. There’s The Last Sentence (2012), about a Swedish newspaper editor who was a vocal critic of the Nazis, by veteran Swedish film-maker Jan Troell. There’s the even better-known Czech director Jiří Menzel, whose comedy, The Don Juans (2013), revolves around a production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. There’s a genuine crowd-puller in Paweł Pawlikowski’s austere Ida (2013), winner of the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. But most interesting of all are two strikingly ambitious films—one from Spain, the other from Estonia—that hark back to the earliest years of film-making.

Pablo Berger’s Blancanieves (2012) sounds fascinating even in summary. It’s the Snow White story (Los Hermanos Grimm, the opening credits declare), but done as a black and white, silent movie set in 1920s Andalusia, with bullfighting as a backdrop. It opens with Antonio Villalta, a famous matador, being gored badly in the bullring. As he fights for his life, his wife loses hers giving birth to a daughter. Villalta survives, but is paralysed from the neck down. His nurse, Encarna, played by the deliciously hatable Maribel Verdú, takes over his life, marrying him and keeping his daughter, Carmen, from meeting him. Carmen is eventually rechristened Blancanieves (Spanish for “snow white”) and becomes that rare thing: a matadora, or female bullfighter.

All the elements of the Snow White story are present—evil stepmother, seven dwarfs (bullfighting dwarfs, no less), poisoned apple—but Berger also gives his film the look and feel of a fairy tale. Blancanieves has that combination of horror, humour and beauty that was so integral to early Disney movies, and which informed the films of Berger’s fellow Spaniard Luis Buñuel. When Encarna has Carmen’s beloved pet rooster served for dinner and bites deliberately into a leg piece in front of the child, the point of the scene is that it’s over-the-top and funny along with being despicable. The atmosphere of unreality is further heightened by the fact that this is, quite literally, a fairy-tale world, one of blimps and toreadors and magic lanterns.

Unlike Michel Hazanavicius, whose highly successful silent film about old Hollywood, The Artist, released a year before Blancanieves and stole some of its thunder, Berger doesn’t treat early cinema as pastiche. The actors do not behave as if they’re in a silent movie (as they did in The Artist), and the film doesn’t make too much of silent film tropes or mannerisms (not that it isn’t playful: One of the intertitles preceding a shot of the rooster is a helpful “Cock a doodle doo!!!”.) This is in contrast to the other (partly) silent film in the line-up, Hardi Volmer’s Living Images (2013). A deliberate pastiche of cinema down the ages, it tells the story of two Estonians, Helmi and Julius, and through them, a history of the country.

Though the film involves a projectionist looking back at his life, don’t go in expecting another Cinema Paradiso. For one thing, all the old movie clips have been painstakingly created by Volmer and his team in the cinematic style of the day. The story unfolds as sped-up silent film, as Technicolor musical, as 1960s-style communist cinema, and in half-a-dozen other cinematic styles. Some of the visual allusions might only make sense to those who can tell the difference between early and late silents, or between Soviet and German colour schemata, but there’s no denying the extent of Volmer’s ambition and the extent to which he realizes it. Living Images may not be the best film you’ll see at the festival, but it’s unlikely you’ll see another quite like it anywhere.

This piece appeared in Mint Lounge.

Bombay Velvet: Review

Did Bombay actually look like a Warner Bros gangster flick in the 1960s? Did police inspectors wear fedoras then? Did movies like The Roaring Twenties, released in 1939, play in theatres? Did young toughs dream of dying like James Cagney, in the arms of a girl calling them a big shot?

They probably didn’t, but it doesn’t matter. This is what the Bombay of Bombay Velvet looks like. It’s the fond dream of someone who wishes the city was, at some time, this cool, this dangerous, and this much like a movie. To fault Anurag Kashyap for historical inaccuracy would be pointless. This is moviemaking as wish fulfilment. To those who argue that Tommy Guns were never fired in these streets, the film says, “Yes, but wouldn’t it be fun if they had been?” This is ostensibly the story of Johnny Balraj, but the only narrative that’s relevant after a while is Anurag Kashyap’s quest to make the ultimate gangster movie. 

Bombay Velvet hits the ground running, setting about half-a-dozen subplots in motion in the first 30 minutes. At halftime I was still untangling them, but the gist is this: Johnny Balraj (Ranbir Kapoor), a bare knuckle boxer with little refinement and loads of hotheadedness, wants to be a big shot. He falls in with a crooked businessman called Kaizad Khambata (Karan Johar) and becomes his muscle. Soon, he’s helping him with his problems with the mill unions and the newspaper editor behind them, Jimmy Mistry (Manish Choudhary), as well as running an uptown club called Bombay Velvet. His life is further complicated by the arrival of jazz singer Rosie Noronha (Anushka Sharma), sent to him by Jimmy, whose mistress she is, to retrieve damaging photo negatives.

There’s a lot more by way of plot—I haven’t even gotten to Kay Kay Menon’s police inspector or Satyadeep Misra as Chimman, Johnny’s childhood friend—but Kashyap keeps things rattling along at a very lively pace (the editing is by Prerna Saigal and Scorsese’s long-time collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker). You almost wish he’d slow down a bit and let you take in the scenery. One of the few times this happens is when Khambata excuses himself during a meeting with Johnny, goes outside and laughs uncontrollably. It’s a throwaway moment, beautifully played by Johar, and such a welcome change of pace that the movie seems to come alive after it. If only Kashyap had developed this character more: a gay, upper-class Parsi with mafia connections and a possible crush on a fair-skinned street brawler. Instead, we’re stuck with Johnny.

Johnny Balraj isn’t nearly as charismatic as the film makes him out to be. He’s scrappy and ambitious but not particularly bright—anyone who comes up with the sort of twin sister ruse he does has no future as a gang boss. He’s prone to sudden bursts of rage but Kapoor—an uncharacteristic bit of matinee idol casting by Kashyap—isn’t convincingly intimidating. Why he speaks tapori-style, like Aamir Khan in Rangeela, when his friend doesn’t, is never explained. Johnny is far less interesting than the characters he is supposed to remind us of: Cagney in The Roaring Twenties and The Public Enemy and White Heat; Johnny Boy in Mean Streets, a force of nature who doesn’t know when to quit; Vijay Verma in Deewar, consumed by the idea of being rich and powerful.

Bombay Velvet could also have done with sharper writing (Vasan Bala, Thani, Kashyap and Gyan Prakash share credit). The plotting is dense but owes a large debt (acknowledged by Kashyap) to James Ellroy and his LA Quartet of novels. The agitations by mill unions in the 1970s are alluded to but not explored in depth, almost as if the writers were afraid that too many historical details might puncture the film’s dream bubble. The ending is a disaster. The dialogue is serviceable, but pales in comparison to Gangs of Wasseypur, one of the most quotable Hindi films of the last decade. “Abhi toh apan small se large hua hai... abhi Patiala hona baki hai” is the kind of line you expect in a Rohit Shetty film, not an Anurag Kashyap one.

Even with all its flaws, Bombay Velvet has style to spare. It has been been shot, like most of Kashyap’s films, by Rajeev Ravi, just the person you want photographing gangsters and shadows. The period design is painstaking, with old Bombay recreated in Sri Lanka. Amit Trivedi’s music pays intelligent tribute to the big band singers and jazz musicians who played in Bombay clubs at the time. And there are some nice little touches, like the use of a stand-up comic as a one-man Greek chorus, or the elevation of Geeta Dutt over Asha and Lata, always the mark of a connoisseur.

Bombay Velvet is frustrating and exhilarating in equal measure. Though his ambition is plain to see, I prefer the Kashyap who delivers the shock of the new rather than the glamour of old.

This review appeared in Mint.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Toons in Hitler’s time

In 1942, MGM released an animated short called Blitz Wolf, directed by the great Tex Avery. The three little pigs must defend their house from a wolf with a Hitler moustache. The visual gags and puns—the wolf’s truck has “Der fewer (der better)” painted on the side—are pure Avery, lightening and simplifying serious matters like trench battles and war bonds.

I wonder if Avery or one of his colleagues had seen a German animated film titled Der Storenfried (The Troublemaker), made two years earlier. This short by Hans Held has a fox as the villain, though the prospect of a blitz—carried out in the short by dive bomber bees—is presented as a positive outcome. The title would have had special resonance for German children: In his piece titled Resistance And Subversion In Animated Films Of The Nazi Era: The Case Of Hans Fischerkoesen, published in the 1992 issue of Animation Journal, William Moritz mentions that a popular Hitler Youth poster of the time read, “Drive out all troublemakers!”

Der Storenfried is part of an intriguing selection of films being screened this Saturday at Films Division in Mumbai, in association with the Goethe-Institut. Presented by documentarian Avijit Mukul Kishore as part of the FD Zone series, “Trickfilm: German Animation Films From The Nazi Era” has films by animators who worked under that regime (“trickfilm” was the German term for animation). Some, like Der Storenfried, are militarist propaganda; others are more insidious. Heinz Tischmeyer’s 1940 film About The Tree That Wanted Different Leaves features a shifty-looking caricature of a Jew stealing gold leaves from a tree.

Yet not all these films are propagandist in nature. For him, says Kishore, part of the fun was in discovering counter-propaganda, instances where film-makers were “throwing in symbols that are anti-fascist”. Perhaps the best example of this can be found in the films of Hans Fischerkoesen. In his Weather-beaten Melody (1942), a bee comes across an abandoned phonograph in a field. Once he gets it working, there’s an impromptu insect party. That hardly sounds threatening, but the film subverts the Nazi ideal of “blood and soil” with its frank embrace of pleasure and sensuality (and swing music, very verboten in Nazi Germany).

Two other Fischerkoesen films in the line-up, Snowman In July (1943) andThe Silly Goose (1944), are built around a similar yearning for beauty and fun. But they also have a veiled warning for artistes operating under the regime: Stay within your boundaries, or you’ll get into trouble. Ironically, Fischerkoesen got into trouble not with the Nazis but with the Russians after the war; he was jailed for three years on charges of being a Nazi collaborator. Once he got out, he built on his earlier career as an adman. Some of his ads from the 1930s and 1940s, which are on YouTube, point to his unique visual style and sense of humour, especially the one for Underberg digestif bitters, with its Dario Argento-like dreamscapes, and the “dancing smoke” ad for Ariston cigarettes.

Another highly impressive film is Ferdinand and Hermann Diehl’s Seven Ravens. The 53-minute film—released on 2 December 1937, a couple of weeks before Disney’s first full-length feature, Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs—is extremely sophisticated in its use of stop-motion animation, puppet figures, and light and shadow. Like Fischerkoesen’s films, it might also be construed as a veiled criticism of the state, particularly of the witch-hunts conducted during the Nazi era (one of the characters is denounced as a witch and sentenced to burn at the stake).

There’s a lot more that’s worth seeking out in this line-up: the nerdily precise sci-fi of Anton Kutter’s Launching Spaceship 1 (1937); the rudimentary but infectiously silly Adventures Of Baron Münchhausen: A Winter’s Journey (1944) by Hans Held; and Frank Leberecht’s charming Poor Hansi (1943). As Kishore is likely to mention on Saturday, these films continued the tradition—if not the style—of German director Lotte Reiniger’s Adventures Of Prince Achmed (1926), the world’s earliest surviving animated feature. That the bleak years that followed produced work of comparable quality is something this programme brings to welcome light.

This piece appeared in Mint Lounge.

Hot Pursuit: Review

It shouldn’t be a big deal to have two well-known actresses starring in a big summer movie. But we live in a world in which Scarlett Johansson’s ability to headline a film is actually up for debate. So it is kind of a big deal that Hot Pursuit rests solely on the tag team of Sofia Vergara and Reese Witherspoon, and that the director entrusted to bring home this perp-cop movie—usually a male-dominated genre—is a woman, Anne Fletcher.

One doesn’t get too many of these in a year, movies in which the leads are women, the male actors aren’t remotely well known, and one doesn’t have to think about the Bechdel Test. Of course, it helps if the film is actually any good, otherwise you’re simply arguing on principle. Hot Pursuit is far from a great film: the premise and the writing simply aren’t original or inventive enough. But it’s an amiable film, one which doesn’t aim too high or pretend to be anything else than a silly summer comedy.

The opening sequence, set to the strains of Tom Petty’s "American Girl" (covered by Elle King), might be the best thing in the film. We see Rose Cooper as a baby, as a little girl, as a teenager heading to prom, always in the backseat of her policeman father’s car. This is Hollywood at its pithiest, telling us the following things in the space of a few minutes: Cooper is her father’s girl; she’s wanted to be a cop all her life; and her personal life might have suffered as a consequence. The first scene outside the car has Cooper (Reese Witherspoon) chasing what we assume is a criminal. It turns out it’s just a guy trying to bail on a date with her.

In most films, someone as socially inept as Cooper would be shown as being great at her job. (Aaron Sorkin does that a lot.) We’re spared that cliché here: Cooper is a by-the-numbers cop given to panicked overreactions; she’s been relegated to the evidence room after an incident with a taser and a misunderstanding of the term ‘shotgun’. When a former drug dealer decides to turn on his boss, Cooper is called in to help escort him to court, but only because the law requires a female cop to travel with the informant’s wife.

It comes as no surprise when the informant and Cooper’s partner are shot by masked men. In a matter of a few scenes, Cooper and the man’s wife, Daniella Riva (Sofia Vergara), find themselves framed for the crime and on the lam. Daniella shakes off her husband’s death as only someone in a Hollywood comedy can, and gets down to the real business of the movie: setting up a battle of wills with Cooper. Witherspoon gamely allows herself to be cast as the unglamorous square—both stars are executive producers—allowing Vergara to play a variation on her glamorous, malapropism-spraying character on Modern Family.

Hot Pursuit is somewhat reminiscent of the buddy cop film The Heat. The banter between Witherspoon and Vergara is a milder version of the R-rated bickering of Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy in that 2012 film. But The Heat (and its predecessor, Bridesmaids) felt like minor events, signaling the advent of the female-driven shock comedy. Hot Pursuit, on the other hand, is a conventional, crowd-pleasing comedy. Despite a couple of outré moments, this is a film more likely to appeal to fans of Modern Family or Fletcher’s 2009 comedy The Proposal than, say, Lena Dunham’s Girls.

This review appeared in Mint Lounge.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Gabbar Is Back: Review

Hindi movie villains have said some pretty weird things over the years. Still, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a catchphrase as un-catchy as the one Digvijay Patil (Suman Talwar) wields in Gabbar Is Back. “I am a brand,” he yells time and again. With a statement of villainy this underwhelming, you’d expect our hero to top it easily. Not so. “I am a bigger brand than you,” Akshay Kumar yells back. They start fighting after this exchange, though they could just as easily have compared stock prices.

Gabbar’s back. Sort of, anyway. Kumar plays a vigilante hero operating under this epochal alias. He has a beard. He utters a couple of Amjad Khan’s lines from Sholay. And that’s it, really. Kumar and his director, Krish (Radhakrishna Jagarlamudi), are utilizing Hindi cinema’s best-known villain as a crutch, using his outsize personality to obscure the fact that they have little of their own. Apart from being pathetic, theft of this sort is also self-defeating. Every time the film references Gabbar, it only serves to remind the audience of what they’re missing.

The number of Bollywood films expressing disgust with the state of the nation and proposing vigilante solutions has increased markedly in recent years. A key film was Neeraj Pandey’s A Wednesday! (2008), which traded in fears of another terrorist bombing; its combination of self-justified anger and quick-fix solutions has been borrowed by films less skilfully manipulative. Gabbar’s methods are similar to those adopted by Randeep Hooda’s gang in Ungli (2014): Identify wrongdoers, kidnap and try them. But in an upping of the ante that is disturbing even in a film this ridiculous, Gabbar goes ahead and kills the most corrupt ones. However, unlike NH10 or Badlapur, which dealt head-on with the messiness of taking the law into one’s own hands, Gabbar Is Back is cartoon activism at best.

No one watches an Akshay Kumar film for the writing, but Gabbar Is Back (story by A.R. Murugadoss, additional screenplay and dialogues by Rajat Arora) is in a class by itself. “Our system is like an infant’s diaper,” Gabbar deadpans to the camera (Kumar delivers nearly half his lines this way). “Get me information on all the Adityas in the country,” Talwar’s baddie demands unreasonably. “Who is Gabbar?” a police inspector asks, staring at a chart with a blank face and a “?” sign on it. “Question mark.”

Who green-lights rubbish like this? Question mark.

This review appeared in Mint.