Monday, August 24, 2015

The man who almost wasn't there

This piece was supposed to be a focused interview in Mint Lounge. It ended up a long form feature in Mint on Sunday, under a different title and with a lot of unnecessary paragraph breaks.

Even if you haven’t seen Bajrangi Bhaijaan, you have probably heard of the Chand Nawab scene. A reporter for a Pakistani TV channel stands on a busy railway platform and tries to deliver a “piece to camera” about people visiting their homes for Eid. However, his flow is repeatedly interrupted by people who keep wandering into the frame. Though it comes bang in the middle of the most commercial contemporary setting possible—a Salman Khan film—the scene has something of the spirit of classic silent comedy, where the set-up, more than the punchline, is everything.

There’s an awful cam print of the scene on YouTube. When it starts, you can hear the people in the hall cheer. It’s a Salman Eid release, but everyone’s thrilled that Nawazuddin Siddiqui is finally on screen. Their faith is repaid in full by the actor, who more or less takes over the second half. Though they are being taken through one of the friendliest Pakistans ever committed to film in India, the audience still needs a guide, and Siddiqui is the perfect person for the job. His asides are brilliantly laconic—he silences a burqa-clad Khan up with a casual “Phir boli, Begum?”—but he can also shift the tenor of a scene from comedy to pathos with less apparent effort than his co-stars, Khan and the young Harshaali Malhotra. I have heard more than a few people say that the film really began for them once Siddiqui turned up.

That someone like Siddiqui is eliciting cheers at all is a bit of a miracle. He should, by rights, have risen to “character actor” and stayed there, like Raghubir Yadav or Deepak Dobriyal. Many of his films have had limited releases; some, like Dekh Indian Circus, have never been seen by the public at all. Yet, by some twist of fate, he has become a leading man. This is in part due to his choices: after his career-making turn in Gangs of Wasseypur, he has balanced arthouse projects like Miss Lovely with more accessible non-mainstream fare like The Lunchbox and occasional forays into commercial cinema (Kick, Bajrangi Bhaijaan). But his popularity with the public, which extends from indie aesthete to small-town cinemagoer, is also a measure of the man—viewers look at him and see someone who is an outsider, self-made, relatable.

The timing of Siddiqui’s rise to fame has also been fortuitous, coinciding with a moment of visible ascendancy for indie cinema. Put in plainer terms, Siddiqui is the face of independent and left-of-mainstream cinema in this country. His career began in earnest with Peepli [Live] in 2010—though some will insist that it all started with that scene in Black Friday (2004) in which he is being interrogated in a jail cell, his desperation palpable in spite of the distracting, lurid red lighting. Since then, he has appeared in Paan Singh Tomar, Kahaani, Gangs of Wasseypur, Miss Lovely, The Lunchbox and Badlapur—some of the most challenging, innovative films to emerge from India in the past few years. That list might have included his largely unseen films Monsoon Shootout (which went to Cannes but hasn’t released here yet) and Liar’s Dice (which screened at Sundance and had an extremely limited release in India in 2014).

Then there’s the merely good and not-that-great stuff that he has enlivened with cameos and supporting turns. In Talaash, his turn as the streetwise Tehmur enlivens the otherwise dour proceedings. In Chittagong, he finds time amid the chaos of the freedom movement to awkwardly fall in love. He was scary in Aatma, and an entertaining borderline psychotic in Kick. And his bravura performance as a struggling actor who is given a brief moment in the sun (a theme that must have resonated with him) elevated Dibakar Banerjee’s segment above the other three in Bombay Talkies.


When we met Siddiqui, he was busy doing interviews for his latest release, Ketan Mehta’s Manjhi: The Mountain Man. The film tells the real-life story of Dashrath Manjhi, a villager whose grief moved him to carve a path through a mountain over 22 years. It has been a couple of years in the making. Mehta, who came up during the parallel cinema movement, shot the movie in early 2013. It was then embroiled in legal wrangles, and is only seeing the light of day now. Siddiqui was offered the role in 2012. Gangs of Wasseypur hadn’t released at the time, and he was only beginning to get recognized because of his roles as the scarily intense Intelligence Bureau officer in Kahaani and the local journalist in Peepli [Live] who develops a crush on the big-city reporter. Still, he was hardly a household name at the time.

How Siddiqui went from unknown quantity to movie star is one of the more improbable success stories in Bollywood. He was born in 1974 in Budhana, a village in Uttar Pradesh. His father was a farmer, and Siddiqui grew up with nine siblings. In a 2012 interview to DNA, he said: “In my village, only three things work: gehu (wheat), ganna (sugarcane) aur gun.” He moved to New Delhi after college; his first job there was as a watchman. He developed an interest in theatre and enrolled at the National School of Drama, graduating in 1996. He worked in Hindi theatre for a while, then moved to Mumbai.

The decade that followed was a hard slog. Siddiqui worked in TV, in B- and C-grade films, in cameos and bit parts. Breaking into the Hindi film industry without any connections or benefactors is tough enough, but to do it as a swarthy, ordinary-looking guy was almost unthinkable. But he kept at it, turning up for a minute here, a few seconds there in films like Sarfarosh, Shool (sharing a scene with future Gangs of Wasseypur and Chittagong co-star Manoj Bajpayee) and Munna Bhai MBBS. Gradually, the roles started getting meatier. That decade of struggle—highlighted in every Siddiqui profile ever written—keeps him on his toes even today. “It was difficult to keep up the effort when nothing was happening,” he said. “Even today it’s difficult to believe that things worked out. When people say I’m a star, I don’t believe it.”

Manjhi was a challenge for Siddiqui, because unlike nearly all the other characters he has played, this one was based on an actual person—someone who was quite well known by the time of his death in 2007, and more so after the TV show Satyamev Jayate dedicated a segment to him. “You have videos of the man, you have people who knew him,” Siddiqui said. “So, I had to become him physically, understand his mindset.” In preparation for the role, he met Manjhi’s son, daughter-in-law and fellow villagers. “They would tell me how he was larger than life, how he used to say everything loudly. I based my characterization on what they said.”

It was a difficult shoot. Mehta had decided they would shoot in Manjhi’s village (Gehlaur in Bihar) and in the neighbouring rocky terrain. This meant camping at Gaya overnight, waking up at three in the morning and travelling for a couple of hours to reach the village. To add to everyone’s worries, the area was known to have a Naxal presence. After concluding what he described as “the toughest shoot of my life”, Siddiqui had trouble detaching himself from the character. He took off by himself, travelling to places like Sam in Rajasthan to clear his head. He likes to travel, he said, especially to places where people don’t recognize him. When I asked him if that happened less and less nowadays, he just smiled.


When we met Siddiqui, it had been two weeks since the release of Bajrangi Bhaijaan. Kabir Khan’s film had already passed the Rs 100 crore mark; it has since grossed an astonishing Rs 600 crore worldwide. For Siddiqui and Manjhi, this was perfect timing. “I feel happy because my smaller films coming up will get more of an audience now,” he said. I asked him if he had seen a noticeable increase in his following after Kick—his first film with Salman, in which he extended the tradition of indie actors playing masala-film villains. “Definitely,” he deadpanned. “Working with Salman should have this advantage at least.”

Siddiqui was careful to give credit for the Chand Nawab scene—based on a real-life video that went viral—to the film’s director. “It was Kabir’s idea,” he said. “He had seen the video and decided to incorporate it in the film.” Keeping in mind the complexity of the scene, with all those moving parts, Jaisalmer station had been booked for the entire day. Shooting started at 9am. An hour later, they had wrapped up the scene. The first take was perfect. “In the film, you have the end bit, but we actually shot the whole thing,” said Siddiqui, referring to the original video, in which Nawab’s agony is prolonged over five minutes. “It was a very difficult scene. You had to be very sure of when you were to forget your lines and start over. I must have seen that video a hundred times at night. When I did it in the morning, I had seen it so much that it got done in one take.”

Seeing a video a hundred times over might sound like an exaggeration, but in Siddiqui’s case, it is probably true. When he gets a script, he says he tries to internalize the dialogue until it seems like the words are coming via the character, not a screenwriter. “One should go to the line through the character,” he said. “You should see their lifestyle in the way they speak.” In several of his films, it may seem like he is ad-libbing, so offhandedly are some of the lines delivered. This isn’t the case, he said. “The easier it looks on screen, the more hard work goes into making it so.”

Siddiqui had been cast by Kabir Khan once before, back when he was still a bit-part player. The film was New York (2009), which examined the fallout of 9/11 from the perspective of Indians living in the US at the time. Siddiqui played a man who is wrongfully detained and tortured on suspicion of being a terrorist. Curiously, even in that film, the highlight of his performance is a piece to camera of sorts. For nearly two minutes, he describes the horrors he was subjected to in jail, slowly breaking down, moving Katrina Kaif’s interviewer (and, most likely, the viewer) to tears. In a recent TV interview, Khan said that people used to come up and ask him whether that actor in his movie was an actual 9/11 detainee. More importantly, this brief scene—along with his appearances in Black Friday (made in 2004, released in 2007) and Firaaq (2008)—meant that directors had also started asking, Who’s that guy?


Siddiqui’s first film this year, Badlapur, was an illustration of the sort of creative risks he is willing to take. It is safe to say that very few roles like this have been attempted in Hindi cinema before. Escaping with his partner after robbing a bank, Siddiqui’s Liak throws a young kid from the car they have hijacked and shoots the mother. And he shows no particular remorse when the father confronts him in jail. Director Sriram Raghavan said he had Ratso from Midnight Cowboy in mind while writing the part, but even Dustin Hoffman didn’t have the scales loaded against him to the extent that Siddiqui does here.

For a while, the film looks a straightforward revenge story, like Raghavan’s own Ek Hasina Thi. But something strange starts to happen. As the father, Raghu, is increasingly warped and curdled in his plans for revenge, Liak becomes—almost imperceptibly—more sympathetic. You see him attempt a prison break, which is comically foiled. He ages. He turns philosophical. He is diagnosed with cancer. By the time he is released, the audience is at least partly on his side. It sets the stage for a gesture of forgiveness that is one of the great endings in modern Hindi cinema.

Over the phone from Lonavla, where he was conducting a film workshop, Raghavan said that the handling of this very gradual shift was something that he and the actor had discussed at length. “It was tricky,” he said. “It wasn’t like we decided that this was the moment where he would start changing.” Siddiqui felt the same way. “The transformation is supposed to be so smooth that you don’t know when it is happening. The change should be in the back of your mind—always in the background.”

Siddiqui was Raghavan’s first choice for Liak; coincidentally, the character was initially named Nawaz. Initially, when he was told about the film, Raghavan couldn’t tell whether Siddiqui “loved it, hated it, or even understood it”; the actor confessed that he was worried whether audiences would accept his character or end up despising him. But he accepted the role, and Raghavan soon realized that he had found the right man for a tricky part. “I had given him the freedom to try things out, throw a line. Most of the time, he would surprise me. I was seeing Liak come alive.” Later, director Ramesh Sippy told Raghavan that he felt viewers were reacting to Siddiqui the same way they had reacted 40 years earlier to Gabbar Singh in Sholay.

During our brief chat, Raghavan mentioned something that seemed to speak to the self-effacing nature of Siddiqui’s fame. When asked how the actor was on set, Raghavan said: “He is invisible. Before the scene, I would look around and say, ‘Where is Nawaz?’ He would be standing there, two feet away.” This is entirely believable, not just because Siddiqui is slim, slight and quiet, but also because he is no one’s idea of what a movie star looks like. But he looks very much like a small-town gangster, a struggling actor living in a chawl, a villager taking out his grief out on a mountain—the kind of characters one rarely used to see on the big screen. He could well surprise us and play an urbane city-dweller one day, but for now, it’s enough that he is touching a chord through his explorations of ordinary lives so often ignored or airbrushed by Bollywood.

Algorithms: Review

In the wrong hands, a documentary about blind chess players could have been unbearable. It isn’t tough to imagine how an overly righteous treatment of the subject would look—weepy strings on the soundtrack, parents with hard-luck stories, slo-mo shots of players raising their hands in triumph. Luckily, Algorithms isn’t concerned with being “inspiring” or “heartwarming” or Satyamev Jayate-like. It sticks close to its subjects, respecting their skill, refusing to sentimentalize them.

The film, made in 2012 but getting a theatrical release in India now, follows three junior players: 12-year-old Sai Krishna from Chennai, 16-year-old Anant from Bhubaneswar and 15-year-old Darpan from Vadodara. We follow their progress over three years as they compete in tournaments within and outside India. We see their personalities take shape: Darpan, charmingly garrulous; Sai Krishna, serious, confidently cool during matches and emotional afterwards; Anant, trying to balance chess, his studies and his diminished economic circumstances. Tying it all together is Charudatta Jadhav, a champion blind chess player who has dedicated his life to developing the game in India.

Algorithms eschews voice-over narration, which helps it avoid portentousness and gives viewers a chance to ease their way into the film. There’s no great effort made to explain how chess for the visually impaired works—one eventually finds out that the black pieces have an identifying peg on them. There’s a great scene early on in which Anant asks a sighted player he has just lost to, about the “end game position”; when his opponent says he can’t remember it, Anant says that he does and starts rearranging the board. Later in the film, Sai Krishna rattles off a game from memory. All chess players have a picture of the board in their mind, but this scene shows how this is literally true for blind players.

The film thrusts the viewer into the midst of games, amongst clutched foreheads and impatient taps, like any good sports film ought to. It has been shot—very fetchingly, by the director, Ian McDonald—in black and white. Symbolically, this makes sense: a minor sensory deprivation (colour) standing in for a major one—sight. It’s also fair—if a little too on the nose—for a film about chess to mimic the visual pattern of a chessboard. Though he’s made a number of smaller documentaries before, this is McDonald’s first feature-length film, and he displays a sure hand, ratcheting up the pace during matches ('Guitar' Prasanna’s score is a huge help in this) before calming things down and checking in with his charges and their very supportive families.

Algorithms could easily just have been a film about Jadhav, who went blind in his teens but nevertheless became a champion player, and then stopped competing so that he could coach others. There’s a real poignancy to the scene where he shows two children his pieces from his playing days, or when he urges Sai Krishna to develop his game and not become “stagnant” like he did. Jadhav’s dream, stated early on and reiterated throughout, is to mentor a blind Indian grandmaster. One hopes that this spare, thoughtful film will rally some support around those working towards this very worthy goal.

This review appeared in Mint.

Manjhi: Review

For 22 years, Dashrath Manjhi had a running battle with a mountain. Working mostly by himself, he tried to clear a path from his village in Bihar, Gehlour, through to the other side, so that the very long journey around the mountain could be reduced to a much shorter one. His fellow villagers, understandably, thought he was crazy. But Manjhi was eventually successful—the 360ft-long, 30ft-wide path was cleared in 1982; some 30 years later, a proper road was made there.

Ketan Mehta’s biopic grounds Manjhi’s (Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s) struggle in his love for his wife, Phaguniya (Radhika Apte), and his grief over her death (she lost her footing on the mountain and injured herself; the delay in getting her to hospital is the reason for her death in the film). Basing Manjhi’s almost superhuman determination on his personal tragedy allows the audience to become emotionally invested in a task that’s more Sisyphean than Herculean. Yet the problem isn’t so much the aspects of Manjhi’s life that Mehta chooses to dramatize, but the way he goes about doing so.

Anyone who has seen Mehta’s last film, Rang Rasiya, will know that the veteran director’s penchant for melodrama has strengthened, rather than tempered, with age. It’s been a while since someone working on the fringes of mainstream cinema has made a film so full of evil thakurs and virtuous villagers and so free of irony and complexity. The melodrama comes at you in never-ending waves, and it’s exhausting. By the time we get to what should have been a dramatic high point in the film—Phaguniya’s fall and subsequent death—we’ve already seen a whipping, several beatings, a man falling into a kiln, a murder, an axe-wielding Manjhi rescuing Phaguniya from a forced marriage, and a needlessly tense water-birth. And this is before a man starts hacking away at a mountain with a hammer and chisel.

The way the on-screen action is conveyed increases the hysteria. Some of the cinematography by Rajiv Jain isn’t bad, especially the scenes where man comes right up against nature—Manjhi and his wife hiding by submerging themselves in the mud; him licking the plants in a well, trying to extract some moisture. But it’s a rare moment when the camera isn’t either peering down at people or looking up at them, or finding some strange sideways, off-kilter angle to investigate the action from. The background score is insistent and old-fashioned. So is the writing, with Mehta and his co-writer Jakhar Mahendar lobbing half-volleys at red tapeism, the caste system and systemic corruption.

The film tries to turn Manjhi into a Forrest Gump figure, but placing him in the context of events like the Emergency doesn’t serve to illuminate them. He has no opinion on them—much as the film would like to connect him with the outside world, he remains a solitary man with a solitary aim. Perhaps that was the point, but the weaving in of current events pales in comparison with films like Gangs Of Wasseypur, which found smarter ways to incorporate the changing politics of the times into their narratives.

These blind spots are unfortunate, because Siddiqui is as good as can possibly be. It’s a difficult role, not just physically but also because Dashrath Manjhi is both inward-looking and outgoing, clamming up when he’s with other people but holding a running dialogue with a mountain. Apte tries her best, but her accent is way off, and she’s asked to smile indulgently at Siddiqui’s antics too often. Tigmanshu Dhulia and Pankaj Tripathi make for entertaining upper-caste villains, while Deepa Sahi (also the producer) turns up for a brief scene as Indira Gandhi.

Manjhi is rousing, simplistic cinema, just about saved by a fantastic lead turn. It’ll do if all you want is a folk tale, but I wish the film had chipped away at Manjhi the way he chipped away at that mountain.

This review appeared in Mint. 

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Shaun The Sheep Movie: Review

In their modest way, Aardman’s stop-motion animation films achieve a sort of perfection. This isn’t to say that the British production house’s output is particularly original or path-breaking. It’s just that there are few cinematic universes (to use a much abused term) that have functioned with such off-hand charm and given so much pleasure over so many years. Aardman was founded in 1972 but came to wider notice with the Wallace & Gromit series of shorts in the early 1990s. Further success, critical and commercial, came with the release of their full-length features Chicken Run (2000) and Wallace & Gromit: The Curse Of The Were-Rabbit (2005).

Shaun The Sheep first appeared as a stand-alone series on British television in 2007. It has since completed 130 episodes, each 7 minutes long and featuring Shaun, his woolly compatriots, the unnamed farmer, self-important guard dog Bitzer and other denizens of the Mossy Bottom Farm. In Shaun The Sheep Movie, directors Richard Starzak and Mark Burton smoothly transfer Shaun’s impish, enterprising personality to the big screen. Wearying of the farm routine, Shaun hatches a plan to escape for a little holiday. As usually happens in an Aardman film, one thing after another goes wrong, and the farmer finds himself in a caravan headed to the big city, with Bitzer in pursuit. With no one there to look after the farm, Shaun heads off to the city himself in search of them.

A large part of Shaun The Sheep Movie’s charm lies in the fact that this is, for all practical purposes, a silent comedy. Though there’s a busy soundtrack of bleats, bangs, thuds, barks, howls and mumbles, there is no actual dialogue. The comedy is visual, rendered in Aardman’s signature stop-motion style, blending puppets with animated, sometimes actual backgrounds. Because one can only convey a limited range of emotion through the puppet faces, the directors must indicate the characters’ feelings the way Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin did in their day—through body language, posture, little gestures. Starzak and Burton achieve this with minimum fuss, moving from one slapstick situation to another, and only occasionally stopping to convey the sadness of sheep—albeit fairly independent, self-reliant sheep—without a shepherd.

None of this is to suggest that the film is in any way self-important or inaccessible. Rather, its silliness is invigorating—the climactic chase has a flock of sheep, two dogs and a farmer inside a horse that’s actually a motor car, The narrative isn’t quite as developed as in Chicken Run: this is essentially a series of set-pieces knitted together. But when set-pieces are sold with this much energy and goodwill, who could possibly resist?

Brothers: Review

Brothers is an official remake of the 2011 film Warrior, in which Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton play estranged siblings who enter a mixed martial arts (MMA) tournament. As Hollywood projects go, it seemed like a good one for Bollywood to adapt. We’re nothing if not familiar with warring brothers, alcoholic fathers and people getting the shit kicked out of them so that they can pay for their daughter’s open-heart surgery—changed to kidney trouble in Brothers, presumably so Akshay Kumar can tell an unfeeling moneyman: “She has kidney failure. It’s you who has the heart problem.”

Brothers, directed by Karan Malhotra (Agneepath), doesn’t have the heart problem; if anything, it exposes a bit too much of its heart. It does have the script problem, the acting problem and several other problems besides. However, not many of these are apparent for the first 40 minutes or so, during which the film is a pretty faithful facsimile of Warrior. Younger brother Monty (Sidharth Malhotra) fights for a living and is trained by his father, Garson (Jackie Shroff), a former alcoholic who just got out of jail. David (Akshay Kumar) is a physics teacher who moonlights as an underground brawler to support his family. He resents his father, and Monty resents his father’s concern for David, but we’re not sure why. Then, in an extended flashback, the film tries to make everything clear.

Everything goes to hell in this flashback. Monty turns out to be Garson’s illegitimate son. Garson is revealed to have caused the death of his wife (it wasn’t enough to just make him an alcoholic, like the character in Warrior). Shefali Shah has a thankless cameo as the wife—she cries, laughs through her tears, runs in slow motion and dies. Shroff, who’s just about held it together before this, gives up the ghost, launching into his version of drunk acting, which is everyone else’s version of hamming. Strangest of all, David, who has been a perfectly nice elder brother to Monty, turns on him after their mother’s death. This resentment fuels Monty’s subsequent fighting career, but no explanation is given as to why the reasonable-seeming David would go on blaming his stepbrother for something that was clearly his father’s fault.

In a way, it’s good that the film embraces its inner Indra Kumar. The first 40 minutes were competent but repressed; what the flashback does is free Brothers up to be the kind of sentimental, over-the-top film it wants to be. And boy, does it embrace this freedom. David and Monty set off on a collision course in India’s first MMA tournament. Raj Zutshi turns up as a commentator, channelling Anil Kapoor in Slumdog Millionaire; of his many gems, I especially loved the one where he reveals that Monty’s dad went to jail for killing his mum and then says, “I hope this angst works for him.” David is asked before a fight by his sick daughter, “I will pray for you, will you pray for me?” The writing—never too smart to begin with—is reduced to inanities like “fighter ka want uski jeet ka formula hai”.

That’s all fine, you may say, but this is a film about MMA—how are the fight scenes? The short answer: not that bad. There’s a minimum of slo-mo, and none of the logic-defying Telugu and Tamil cinema-inspired rubbish that’s dominated Hindi action film-making in the last few years. The differences in the brothers’ techniques are delineated well enough: Monty is a brutal finisher, David is more of a strategist. But they can’t compare with the fights in Warrior, partly because we simply don’t direct action as well but also because Malhotra keeps cutting away from the action, making the scenes less punishing, and less believable.

Sidharth Malhotra is impressively bulked up, but there’s a lost look in his eyes that doesn’t go with the fearsome reputation he’s building up in the ring. The greying Kumar, on the other hand, makes for a terrific David; beneath the low-key intensity, there’s a sadness that’s very moving. Shroff is entertainingly bad—I only understood 20% of what he was saying, but it isn’t exactly a stoic performance, so I got the gist. Yet, any sins the actors commit are nothing compared to the rank sentimental choices made by the director. When David has Monty in a clinch during their climactic face-off, we cut to a childhood memory of the two of them hugging. It’s difficult to imagine anyone making mixed martial arts cheesier than it already is, but Malhotra manages that here.

This review appeared in Mint.

Difficult Tunes: Amy, Montage of Heck & What Happened, Miss Simone?

Towards the end of Asif Kapadia’s documentary on Amy Winehouse, we see the late singer in the studio with Tony Bennett. We know that Bennett is one of Winehouse’s idols, and she’s visibly nervous as they begin recording "Body And Soul". Bennett sings a verse, then Winehouse comes in and does what she did better than any of her compatriots: Make an old standard new and surprising. But she looks miserable, and asks Bennett if they can start over. “I was terrible. I just don’t want to waste your time,” she mutters. He reassures her, telling her they’ll keep at it until they get one that works. “You’re not in any hurry, are you?” he asks.

The sad thing is that Winehouse really was, if not in a hurry, then at least out of time. Whether she knew that she would be stepping off the roller-coaster her life had become is difficult to say. What we do know is that the 23 March 2011 recording was her last studio session. She died on 23 July that year, just 27 years old, of accidental alcohol poisoning.

Amy traces her sudden rise to stardom after her single "Rehab" and her drawn-out and extremely well-documented fall. It’s the first great documentary of the TMZ era, where all your missteps are recorded and all your demons are public if you’re a celebrity. London-based Kapadia creates a life out of small fragments, gathering all the audio and video matter relating to Winehouse that he could lay his hands on and piecing them together to form a mosaic of opinions, recollections and judgements. He also spoke to over 100 people connected to Winehouse. However, instead of showing us the interviews, Kapadia uses them as narration, layering them over footage of Winehouse, often as a comment on whatever is unfolding.

Amy’s patchwork nature may strike several viewers as haphazard, lacking in the kind of structure one expects from films that are telling a life story. Yet there is great skill involved in piecing together material this way. By the time Winehouse enters her drugs and rehabilitation phase, the film has already foreshadowed this. At the same time, there’s a refusal to underline things and foist a point of view on the viewer that makes this a lot more challenging (and moving) than your average rockumentary.

Amy emerged as an unlikely critical darling when it premiered at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival. Amazingly, this wasn’t the first documentary about a troubled musician to premiere at a major festival this year. Kurt Cobain: Montage Of Heck played at the Sundance Film Festival in the US in January. Director Brett Morgen was approached by Courtney Love, Cobain’s widow, to make a film on her husband. What makes it unique is that he was given access to a storage facility full of recordings, journals and drawings belonging to Cobain—material that no one, not even the family, had seen before.

Morgen creates an astonishingly intimate portrait of a man about whom one might have assumed there was nothing left to be said. It’s not that we see a new Cobain through this film—those who’ve read Charles R. Cross’ biography Heavier Than Heaven will recognize the sardonic, petulant and, yes, brilliant man on screen here. What’s surprising is the perspective we’re offered. Montage Of Heck is Cobain on Cobain.

Morgen’s foregrounding of the long-buried material he found means that this film is the closest we’ve come—probably the closest we’ll ever come—to an autobiography of the man. In the absence of a voice of god narrator, Cobain becomes a kind of narrator himself, with Morgen arranging his recordings, interviews, scribbles and artwork (the film’s title refers to an audio montage that Cobain made) to tell his story. In the parts where visual evidence is missing, the story is continued either with animation sequences or Cobain’s macabre drawings transformed into motion graphics.

Montage Of Heck stumbles when Morgen peppers his narrative with that rock-doc staple—talking heads. We hear from Love, Cobain’s mother and father, his bandmate Krist Novoselic (though Dave Grohl is absent) and his old girlfriend. The Cobains had never spoken about their son on film before, so one can understand Morgen’s reasons for including their views. Still, it feels like a mistake, a nod to convention that’s both unnecessary and out of sync with the rest of the material.

There was another documentary about a brittle, brilliant pop star at the Sundance Film Festival. This was What Happened, Miss Simone?, which takes its title from a tribute by poet Maya Angelou. Though its subject matter is just as incendiary as the other two films, director Liz Garbus’ treatment of Nina Simone’s life is done in a manner more akin to a PBS, or Public Broadcasting Service, biography—professional but not revelatory. A film like Amy or Montage Of Heck would have taken the assertion by Simone’s daughter, early in the film, that her mother was “Nina Simone 24x7, and that’s where it became a problem” and run with it. Instead, the film only connects this to the singer’s bipolar disorder in the closing moments of the film.

What Happened, Miss Simone? has no problem relying on talking heads to push its story. This works on some occasions—the reminiscences by Simone’s daughter are especially poignant—but there’s also the perplexing decision to give a lot of screen time to her abusive former husband, Andrew Stroud, who disparages her shift towards political activism. There are a couple of unnecessary recreations of scenes from the young Simone’s life. Also, there’s not nearly enough time given to explaining what made her music—a melange of jazz, soul, gospel, folk and classical—so unique.

There’s a lot to recommend this film, though. By devoting a large chunk of its running time to Simone’s politics, the film finds a breadth of perspective that the Cobain and Winehouse ones, both claustrophobically focused on their subjects, miss out on. And the clips of her performing are electrifying. The opening, with her performing at the 1976 Montreux Jazz Festival, shows the viewer what a hair-raising, unpredictable performer she could be (“Sit down!” she barks at an audience member). We see her performing "Mississippi Goddam" at a charged civil rights gathering. Even her TV appearances are thrilling, transporting—which is saying something when one of them involves being introduced by Playboy founder Hugh Hefner.

Taken together, these three films are great additions to the warts-and-all music documentaries tradition, which includes such warped classics as Let It Be, Madonna: Truth Or Dare, Some Kind Of Monster and I Am Trying To Break Your Heart. It also marks a great year for the musical film in general. Love & Mercy, a film about The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson, opened to strong reviews, as did Mia Hansen-Løve’s Eden, about the birth of the French House scene. Miles Ahead, Don Cheadle’s film on Miles Davis, will close the New York Film Festival in October. And there’s the tantalizing prospect of a documentary on masked techno duo Daft Punk. Happy viewing, then, and happy listening.

This piece appeared in Mint Lounge.

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation: Review

The real star of Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation isn’t Tom Cruise, playing Ethan Hunt here for the fifth time. It isn’t Rebecca Ferguson, as the lethal Ilsa Faust, though she comes very close. It isn’t writer and director Christopher McQuarrie (Jack Reacher). To my mind, the standout in Rogue Nation is Robert Elswit. The cinematographer, who also did the last M:I film, but is better known for his work in There Will Be Blood and Nightcrawler, gives the film a dark, burnished look that’s a treat for the eyes. He does what Roger Deakins did for the last Bond film, Skyfall: classing up the whole affair without sacrificing any of the thrills.

Skyfall is a reasonable comparison in other ways. That film had a Bond who was feeling the effects of age, questioning his own judgement. Rogue Nation has similar intimations of mortality as far as Hunt is concerned. Throughout the film, he finds himself a step behind the shadowy Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), who’s running an organisation of ex-spies called the Syndicate, an “anti-IMF” bent on world domination through surgical terrorist strikes. There are repeated suggestions that Hunt has met his match, and that this might be the last mission for the Impossible Missions Force gang: Hunt, Luther (Ving Rhames), Benji (Simon Pegg) and Brandt (Jeremy Renner).

In Rogue Nation, Hunt becomes the hunted, pursued not only by the Syndicate but also by the CIA, which has ordered the closure of the IMF. McQuarrie keeps things pacy and slightly tongue-in-cheek: it’s possible to see this as the work of someone who, in another era, wrote The Usual Suspects. Nothing demonstrates this better than the long opera house sequence in Vienna, where Cruise, Ilsa and two hired guns battle it out while Puccini’s Turandot unfolds and Elswit makes sublime use of shadows and the lush setting. Then, perhaps because she’s called Ilsa and she’s caught between two men, the action heads to Casablanca, where there’s a spectacular but exhausting car chase. Finally, everyone heads to London to execute a plan in which the British prime minister is just a pawn in the game.

None of this is particularly plausible, but it’s more or less pleasurable throughout. Ferguson, whether in a slinky evening dress or a jumpsuit, is both dangerous and sympathetic (her character’s surname is a clue to the kind of deals she’s made) in a way that Hunt—competent to the point of being superhuman—isn’t. Pegg has no problem milking Hollywood’s continued casting of him as a bumbling Britisher; Rhames gets the worst lines (though he says them as if they’re the best lines); and the talented Renner is, not for the first time in a major franchise, superfluous. Which leaves us with Cruise. As long as he’s jumping, leaping, diving, climbing or killing, he’s without peer. It’s only when the camera settles on him are we reminded that this is a 53-year-old man. Cruise looks exhausted when he’s standing still and talking. But then he starts to run, and all’s right with the world.

This review appeared in Mint.

Film Review: Bangistan

Around halfway through Bangistan, there’s a home shopping-style commercial for a bomb. It’s deliriously absurd, with a bald Russian arms dealer listing the advantages of a bomb strapped to a bikini-clad woman, and a testimonial of sorts from a one-armed jihadi. I mention this scene because it might be the one time this film has a funny idea and manages to see it through. I went in to Bangistan semi-hopeful—I have a soft spot for Riteish Deshmukh’s comic turns, and the idea of pairing him with the cocksure Pulkit Samrat sounded promising. I came out wondering how anyone could come up with a film that makes PK’s take of religious strife look subtle.

In the land of Bangistan, the Muslims live in the north (which looks like Kandahar), the Hindus in the south (which looks like Banaras), and no one wants to get along. Like everything else in the film, the conceit of a fictional country is half-baked: it exists mainly as a hook on which the writers can hang tired gags (there are fake chains like FcDonald’s and Star*ucks), but they’re obviously talking about India and its apparently warring religious factions (that’s satire, folks!). Having done precious little with the idea, the film leaves Bangistan behind altogether after the first half hour. Extremist leaders of both sides send a suicide bomber each to the World Religions’ Conference in Krakow, Poland, and this is where the rest of the film unfolds.

What I found even more inexplicable than the screenwriters creating a fictional nation without having the satire to back up this conceit, is the sheer unnecessariness of Hafeez Ali (Deshmukh) and Praveen Chaturvedi (Samrat) posing as followers of each other’s faith when they go to Krakow. There’s no reason why they couldn’t go as they were and still blow up the conference. On the other hand, if they didn’t try each other’s faith on for size, how will we know that all religions are one, and that what regular folks really want is to love each other? Reel them in with comedy, then hit them with life lessons, seems to have been the game plan here.

If the first half is a series of jokes that never take off (and a couple that take off and go sideways, like errant firecrackers), the second nosedives into a pool of preachiness, broad acting and plain old confusion. So many of the gags here should never have made it past first draft: the cop called Wai Kar Wong; the mercifully brief scene where Samrat does De Niro in Taxi Driver in front of a mirror (there’s a reference to The Untouchables as well). The film culminates in a long scene at the religious summit (which looks more like comic con), where Samrat has an embarrassing breakdown in the bathroom, followed by an equally emotional outburst by Deshmukh in which he essentially tells a gathering of religious leaders that religious leaders are bad news—and is applauded.

Bangistan’s director and co-writer is Karan Anshuman, a former critic. This is his first film; hopefully, he’ll have other, better ones in the future. Still, I’ll be grateful if I can go a year without being subjected to anything as painfully trite as this line from one of Bangistan’s songs: “Mera koi dharm nahin tha / Jab main chhota baccha tha” (I had no religion / When I was a little child”).

This review appeared in Mint.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Ant-Man: Review

It’s been a decent fortnight for genre film-making. Last week, Bajrangi Bhaijaan pushed every emotional button it could get its hands on, and managed to sell its far-fetched premise. Ant-Man, which released this week, has a premise that’s even more far-fetched, and ends up being just as entertaining. But it is no more an anarchic masterpiece—which is what some fanboys will want you to believe—than the Salman-starrer.

When someone does something slightly different with a genre as codified and hidebound as the superhero film, it’s tempting to overrate the achievement. It’s easy to emerge from Ant-Man feeling like you’ve watched an elaborate spoof. Yet, the truth is there have already been a number of superhero movies that have mocked the idea of, well, superheroes. Ant-Man builds on the pop smarts of The Avengers and the I’m-no-hero shtick of Guardians Of The Galaxy, just like these films built on the wisecracking Iron Man films.

Paul Rudd plays Scott Lang, an ex-con (jailed for burglary, not robbery, as he clarifies), fresh out of jail, divorced, and separated from his daughter, whom he loves dearly. In order to scramble together money to pay child support, he takes on what seems like a straightforward safe-cracking assignment. It turns out to be a set-up; the house belongs to a scientist named Hank Pym, who’s rumoured to have developed some sort of shrinking mechanism, and who’s had an eye on Scott for a while. Scott finds a suit when he breaks into the safe; once home, he puts it on. Suddenly, he shrinks to a few inches tall.

The rest you can probably guess. Scott seeks Hank out; Hank tells him the story of how he developed the suit and used it for secret superhero missions, and how his former protégé, Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), is developing similar technology but plans to weaponize it. Hank offers Scott a shot at redemption (he literally says, “I believe everyone deserves a shot at redemption”). Hank accepts and starts training to be Ant-Man (who shrinks to the size of an ant while retaining the strength of a full-size human). The second half of the movie is more a heist film than anything else, with Scott and his friends, both human and insect, breaking into Cross’ facility to destroy his technology.

Whatever you feel about Ant-Man, know that it could have been a lot better. For a long time, it looked like Edgar Wright would be the one to write and direct the film. The thought of the director of Hot Fuzz and Scott Pilgrim Vs The World directing everydude Paul Rudd was very appealing—it was almost as if the cool kids had hijacked a studio for their own fun party. But then Wright backed out, ominously citing creative differences. His and Joe Cornish’s script remained, though it was further reworked by Adam McKay and Rudd. Directorial responsibilities were assumed by Peyton Reed (Down With Love, The Break-Up).

Reed displays a fair amount of imagination in the action scenes, with Rudd shrunk to bite-size and commanding an army of ants (he’s taught to control them by Hank and his daughter, Hope, played by Evangeline Lilly). There’s an extended sequence at the end which is reminiscent of, and as beautiful as, the psychedelic lights passage at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Where Wright is missed, I think, is in the handling of obligatory superhero moments—the backstory, the big speech, the saving of a child. Just like the best old Hollywood directors managed to find their way around the Hays Code (which spelt out what could and couldn’t be shown on screen), so we look to modern-day film-makers to be able to subvert such tropes. Ant-Man does this to a degree, but doesn’t go far enough.

The one thing Ant-Man gets exactly right is its casting. Rudd is a great choice as a superhero no one can honestly take seriously, mainly because he rarely seems like he’s ever taking anything seriously himself. Michael Peña is wonderful comic relief as Scott’s roommate; Stoll tries on a number of different smirks as the ant-agonist (you have to allow me one of those); Lilly brings some much-needed sex appeal to the Marvel Cinematic Universe; while David Dastmalchian, rapper Tip “T.I.” Harris and Bobby Cannavale do entertaining work on the sidelines. If there must be a sequel—and there’s plenty of room left open for one—it would be nice to have the whole gang back.

This review appeared in Mint.

Drishyam: Review

At the time I saw Nishikant Kamat’s Drishyam, I hadn’t seen Jeethu Joseph’s blackly comic Malayalam thriller of the same name, on which it is based. I still haven’t seen the recently released Tamil remake with Kamal Haasan. Nor have I read The Devotion Of Suspect X, the Japanese novel that Joseph insists has nothing to do with the movie but which bears more than a passing resemblance to it. So I was happy to play along with the conceit that this film was “based on an original story” by Joseph instead of being an authorized copy of a possible unauthorized copy.

Drishyam starts in the most un-thriller-like fashion. We meet Vijay (Ajay Devgn), an amiable “chauthi fail ganwaar aadmi” (“a class IV drop-out”; his own words) who owns a small cable TV business in Goa. The first 40 minutes are spent establishing him as a family man, movie-obsessed, not book-smart but a quick thinker, popular in the community—all important factors in what’s to come, but which could nevertheless have been handled with less economy. Then, just as I was beginning to scribble “Get a move on” on my pad, the film moved straight into fifth gear and stayed there for the next 2 hours.

The acceleration begins—and skip this paragraph if you’d prefer to avoid a mild spoiler—when Vijay’s elder daughter, Anju, is approached by an unblinking young man who may as well have sleazebag written on his T-shirt. We had seen the two on a school trip together, and he tells her that he had shot a video of her taking a bath there. He asks her to meet him at night; she does, bringing along her mom (Shriya Saran) for support (why not her well-muscled dad?). As the boy tries to blackmail the mother—there’s a queasy scene with her going down on her knees to beg for her daughter’s honour—Anju grabs a rod and tries to knock the mobile phone containing the video out of his raised hand. She ends up braining him instead—fatally. Mother and daughter bury the body in the backyard. When Vijay returns—he’d been watching movies in his office all night—they tell him everything. Instead of reporting the matter to the police, Vijay comes up with an elaborate plan to cover their tracks. To reveal any further details would be unfair—especially since it’s so rare to see an Indian film that’s constantly (and convincingly) a couple of steps ahead of the audience.

Unfortunately, while the twisty plot is enough to see Drishyam home, Kamat’s direction is just serviceable. Too often, he takes multiple scenes to establish things that could have been made clear in one. Remakes are often a good opportunity to trim the fat, but there’s only a minute shaved off the original’s 164-minute running time. There are also tonal inconsistencies: This sort of material is fine when played as a comic thriller, but when the film regresses into a sentimental tale about a man trying to protect his family (and, let’s not forget, covering up a murder), it’s unconvincing. A dash of style might have helped as well. “Visuals can be deceptive”, the film’s tag line warns—but the visuals here are just drab.

Neither are the performances all that they should be. Devgn’s been away from serious acting for so long that it’s a relief just to see him underplay and not chomp at the scenery too much. What he can’t do is make Vijay interesting—he struck me as bland even before I saw Mohanlal essay the same role in the original. Ishita Dutta and Mrinal Jadhav, the elder and younger daughters, respectively, and Saran do way too much hand-wringing, though whether it’s on the director’s instructions or the actors’ fault is difficult to tell.

In the midst of all this is Tabu, operating on a whole different level as IG Meera Deshmukh, a tough-as-nails cop who also happens to be the dead boy’s mother. She is immediately suspicious of Vijay—it’s a feeling we cops get, she explains to her husband (a moving Rajat Kapoor)—but she’s also fascinated by his manoeuvring and his audacity, even as she’s hurting at her loss. The way Tabu switches between these conflicting emotions, and occasionally allows them to overlap, is a sight to behold. Despite being saddled with a number of scenes in which she’s asked to glare at the camera in slo-mo, she’s the best thing in the film by some distance. Drishyam is a solid remake, but would have been much more exciting with Tabu in Vijay’s role and Devgn as the cop.

This review appeared in Mint.