Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The Intern: Review

You have to love actors who commit to mediocre films. By investing in the material and never letting on that they know it’s terrible, they allow us, if only for a moment, to connect with it as well. Something like this happened during The Intern. The commitment did not come from Robert De Niro, who’s barely doing anything at all. It was displayed by his co-star, Anne Hathaway, who gives this sentimental comedy-drama by Nancy Meyers a deep and surprising emotional charge.

Ben (De Niro) is a sprightly widower in his 70s looking for something to do. He comes across a flyer advertising an opening for senior citizen interns at a web-based clothing company. Soon, he’s hired and finds himself in the position of personal assistant to the company’s founder, Jules (Anne Hathaway). Perhaps to dilute the outlandishness of its central premise—a 70-something man interning for a 30-something new age-y boss—the film immediately serves up a slew of familiar clichés. Jules is Hollywood’s idea of a woman boss: perpetually stressed, obsessed with minutiae, unable to balance home and work. And Ben is a throwback, a “real man”, “the last of a dying breed”. In case that wasn’t enough, you also get the overworked, unconfident assistant, the painfully adorable kid, and the mother who doesn’t love her ambitious daughter enough.

It’s hardly a surprise when Ben charms the entire office, and, after some resistance, Jules. She starts to rely on him not only for professional help but also personal guidance, which is where the film gets a little interesting. Jules’ affable husband Matt (Anders Holm), who gave up his marketing career to be a stay-at-home dad, is revealed to be having an affair. Jules is aware of this, and knows she ought to confront Matt, but has been putting it off until she takes a decision on the new CEO she’s being pressured into hiring. Luckily, Super-Ben is at hand to dispense relationship advice, some of which she thankfully ignores.

Meyers is one of Hollywood’s most successful female writer-directors. The Intern, however, is hampered by its attempts to be hip, and has none of the knockabout charm of What Women Want. De Niro does only as much as he needs to (and sometimes less) in a film that genuflects to him. It’s a little unnerving to see this most spiky of actors allowing himself to be adorable, after decades of avoiding exactly this.

It’s left to Hathaway to rescue what she can. Her Jules is by turns brittle, warm, self-possessed, vulnerable and impulsive, and Hathaway conveys all this without making her performance seem like an acting class. Few actors today can cry like she does on screen; even fewer can transform material like this into something halfway resonant. Fifteen minutes in Les Misérables won her an Oscar, but this unheralded, largely unremarkable film shows what she’s capable of.

This review appeared in Mint. 

Calendar Girls: Review

Even in Hindi cinema, where the dividing line between camp and crap is often indistinct, there’s no one quite like Madhur Bhandarkar. His films are monuments to bad taste, but there’s no sign that he’s aware of this. His modus operandi is simple and crude: Titillate viewers with tales of high scandal ripped from the headlines, then hit them with moral judgement. He’s like a modern-day Cecil B. DeMille, minus the spectacle.

Because we’re suckers for a little moralizing, Bhandarkar was initially thought of as a “bold” director (2001’s Chandni Bar, with Tabu, was his best). That moment has long passed; a “Madhur Bhandarkar-type film” is one of the worst things you can call a young film-maker’s work. And yet, the man himself perseveres. His latest affront, Calendar Girls, is worse than the 1961 Neil Sedaka number of (almost) the same name, something I would never have thought possible. It comes three years after his last film, Heroine, and the least he owes us now is another three years to recuperate before we have to endure another one.

Calendar Girls, as the title subtly hints, is about a group of models who are chosen for a major magazine shoot and the ways their lives change after it is done (the reference is to the Kingfisher Calendar). The girls come from all over—Paroma (Satarupa Pyne) from Kolkata, Nandita (Akanksha Puri) from Hyderabad, Mayuri (Ruhi Singh; the ambitious model in Nisha Pahuja’s documentary The World Before Her) from Rohtak, Sharon (Kyra Dutt) from Goa and Nazneen (Avani Modi) from Lahore—to Mumbai, from where they’re whisked off to Mauritius for the shoot. Almost immediately, we’re in prime Bhandarkar territory, with the photographer suggesting that they all get to know each other better by narrating their first sexual encounters.

After the shoot’s over and the film’s done leering at its protagonists (for the moment), it splits into five tracks, as each girl tries to parlay her new-found fame into something lasting. But since Bhandarkar films thrive on bad choices, Paroma ends up a honeypot for cricketers, pimped out by her bookie boyfriend; Nandita finds herself married to an unfaithful jerk from a rich family; and Nazneen, her career blighted by anti-Pakistan protests, becomes a high-price escort (in an almost obligatory twist, one of her clients is Nandita’s unfaithful jerk husband). Only Mayuri and Sharon manage to make something of their lives, the former by smooth-talking her way into Bollywood, the other by embarking on a rather improbable TV career.

The writing, especially the English dialogue, just makes things worse. Nazneen is told by her Pakistani boyfriend that she’s going to “warm the beds of kaafirs” in Bollywood. “Hope you know me,” one smooth talker says to Paroma at a party. “It’s a free choice world,” Mita Vasisht’s madam remarks. The five leads, all of whom are making their Hindi film debut, are terribly exposed; with the exception of Kyra Dutt, they can barely mouth their lines, let alone rise above such terrible material. I couldn’t help feeling sorry for them, cast adrift as they were in a sea of stupidity by their eminently more culpable director.

Bhandarkar obviously doesn’t think he’s a bad director. He cameos as himself here, and accepts Mayuri’s compliments about his thought-provoking films. Will she star in his next project, he asks? It’s called “Air Hostess”. With anyone else, this might be seen as self-awareness. But with Bhandarkar, it plays like unwitting self-parody.

This review appeared in Mint.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

The Ninth and the World

Earlier this week, the first of the Syrian refugees arrived in Germany. In many places, the local populace turned up to welcome them. There’s a short report from the Munich railway station that you can stream on the BBC’s Facebook page. As the visibly weary travellers stream out, the crowd claps and cheers. The refugees wave back, a little boy hands out sweets. Then, off-camera, someone starts singing in German.

Freude, schöner Götterfunken,

Tochter aus Elysium,

Wir betreten feuertrunken,

Himmlische, den Heiligtum

The words are from An Die Freude, by German poet Friedrich Schiller. The English-speaking world knows it as Ode To Joy, immortalized as the instantly familiar finale to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. That some unseen man decided to sing this for refugees is both extremely moving and entirely appropriate. Time and again, Ode To Joy has popped up at key moments in history, providing a soundtrack for vastly different political and social movements.

An Die Freude was written in 1785. Even divorced from Beethoven’s choral arrangement, Schiller’s ode sounds blissed-out in its English translation. “Joy, thou beauteous godly lightning/ Daughter of Elysium/ Fire drunken we are ent’ring/ Heavenly, thy holy home,” it begins. It continues in the same vein, but underneath its swoony surface is a political charge in its call for equality and brotherhood, found in lines such as “Every man becomes a brother” and “Let our book of debts be cancell’d”.

Beethoven was an admirer of An Die Freude, as indeed many German personae of the arts at the time were; the poem had been set to music a couple of times before Beethoven got to it. We know, from a letter written by one Bartholomäus Ludwig Fischenich to Schiller’s wife, that he intended to set it to music as far back as 1793 (“I expect something perfect for as far as I know him he is wholly devoted to the great and the sublime,” Fischenich wrote about the composer). The adaptation finally happened with the Ninth Symphony.

Schiller revised the text in 1803; it was from this version that Beethoven chose three choruses and three verses and fashioned one of the greatest symphonic movements. It begins once the baritone soloist hears the dissonant fanfare that opens the final movement and sings, “Oh friends, not these sounds! Let us instead strike up more pleasing and more joyful ones.”

Few works of art are as deserving of the descriptor “universal” as the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth. And it is this universality that has allowed so many diverse ideologies to see their ambitions reflected in it. Since its premiere on 7 May 1824 in Vienna, its messianic power has been admired and utilized across the political spectrum. Nationalists in early 20th century Germany revered it, but so did the socialists; Kurt Eisner, who organized the overthrow of the monarchy in Bavaria in 1918, described it as the “welthymnus (world anthem) of the Ninth”. In Beethoven’s Ninth: A Political History, Esteban Buch and Richard Miller mention how, as France and Germany clashed in World War I, “two nationalist Beethovens found themselves standing face to face on the battlefields”.

In his provocative, fascinating film, The Pervert’s Guide To Ideology, cultural critic Slavoj Žižek points to the “universal adaptability” of Ode To Joy. He mentions how it was almost a communist song in Soviet Russia; how it was used to mark big public events in Nazi Germany (including Hitler’s birthday in 1937 and 1942); how it was one of the few pieces of music that didn’t get banned during the Cultural Revolution in China. In Rhodesia, the tune (with altered lyrics) was adopted as the national anthem, resulting in Ode To Joy performances becoming extremely controversial once apartheid was abolished and the country became Zimbabwe.

It could function equally well as a symbol of hope and brotherhood. In a Chile chafing under Augusto Pinochet’s brutal rule, Death And The Maiden author Ariel Dorfman wrote, “We sang, over and over, the Ode To Joy from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the hope that a day would come when all men would be brothers”. It was played by protesters at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989. In post-World War II Germany, the tune carried with it the stigma of its Nazi patronage, until a remarkable cleansing occurred. In December 1989, to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall, Leonard Bernstein conducted two concert performances, one in East Berlin, the other in West Berlin. The piece chosen was Ninth Symphony, with one little alteration: freude (joy) was replaced by freiheit (freedom).

Perhaps the strangest instance of Ode To Joy’s cross-cultural assimilation has been in Japan. Every New Year’s Eve, thousands of Japanese sing the German lyrics to the song they affectionately call Daiku—the number 9. Some say the song caught on there during World War I, when German prisoners of war staged a performance of the Ninth. Alternatively, it was suggested in The New York Times that the craze began in the years before World War II, when Daigoro Arima, conductor of Japan’s only significant orchestra, returned from his studies in Vienna and brought with him the practice of playing the Ninth on New Year’s Eve. Whatever its origins, it has become a holiday tradition there, to the extent that a 10,000-strong Number Nine Chorus gathers every year in Osaka to perform it.

Is Ode To Joy, as Žižek has argued, an “empty signifier” that can stand for anything? That it’s infinitely malleable is beyond dispute: What other piece of music could serve the markedly different purposes of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange and the Die Hard series? We may never find out why our unknown singer in Munich decided to use it as shorthand for his feelings at that moment. Maybe it was because the tune has been the European anthem since 1972. Perhaps he thought the line “Alle menschen werden brüder (Every man becomes a brother)" was appropriate. Or, just maybe, he was hoping that there would be a few among those who had just arrived in a strange land who recognized the tune and felt more at home.

This piece appeared in Mint Lounge.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Piku: Review

Had forgotten to post this when the film released, so doing it now. Saw the film again recently. It really is well-written.

In Piku, Amitabh Bachchan plays Bhaskor, a 70-year-old Bengali widower who’s obsessed with the state of his health. He’s particularly interested in the texture, hue, quantity, ease and regularity of his motions. One might dismiss such behaviour as a screenwriter’s conceit but my Bengali friends assure me that this kind of fretting is normal in their households. Apparently, Bengali males of a certain vintage are most content while thumbing through medical books, looking for what ails them. One might call them happychondriacs.

Now, that’s a bad pun and I apologize, but it’s hardly worse than the dozens of stool-centric jokes—including the ridiculous tagline: ‘Motion se hi emotion’—that one encounters during the course of this movie. This isn’t to say Piku is an unsubtle film, only that it’s at its weakest when striving for effect. When the film’s promotion focussed on potty humour, I assumed its makers were playing to the gallery to get people talking about the film. But Bhaskor’s constipation really is the main topic of discussion in the film. It rules his life and that of his long-suffering daughter, Piku (Deepika Padukone).

The film is built around a road trip that Bhaskor and Piku make from their Delhi home to their ancestral house in Kolkata. They’re accompanied by Rana (Irrfan Khan), a taxi stand owner who ends up chauffeuring them when his driver bails at the last minute. Though there’s an ostensible reason for this trip—Bhaskor has a near-death experience and wants to see his old house, which Piku is secretly thinking of selling —it’s really just a way for director Shoojit Sircar and screenwriter Juhi Chaturvedi to get these personalities to bounce off each other. Some of the best scenes in the film unfold in the car, with Bhaskor imperious and unreasonable, Piku holding on to her sanity with both hands, and Rana looking on in wonderment at the two of them.

When it’s on song, Piku has a lot going for it. Chaturvedi has a knack for writing spiky dialogue and characters with complexities and tics. Moushumi Chatterjee and Jisshu Sengupta do some useful supporting work. Instead of big set-pieces, Sircar gives us a series of small showdowns, confrontations and revelations. There’s great use made of overlapping dialogue, especially in the dinner tables scenes, with everyone eating and arguing at the same time.

Bachchan as Bhaskor will probably divide opinions down the middle. The accent he adopts is almost too Bengali; when he’s acting with actual Bangla-speakers, you can tell the difference. Yet, he also manages to locate a stubborn charm and moral certitude in his character’s bluster. His scenes with Irrfan, who finds himself in the unaccustomed role of mood-lightener (and acquits himself beautifully), are memorable for their push and pull; the ones with Padukone tilt too heavily in Bachchan’s direction.

Bachchan’s boisterous performance places him at the centre of most scenes, but the film’s emotional lynchpin is its titular character. Padukone has made a career out of underplaying; suggesting rather than serving up emotions. This might be her smartest performance yet. In the beginning, Piku’s so wrapped up in her father’s demands that she has little emotion left for herself. She spends the first half hour frowning with varying degrees of intensity. But as the film progresses and Rana begins to divert Bhaskor’s attention, we see her open up. All three performances come together spectacularly in one scene. After listening to Bhaskor rant for more than a day, Rana finally loses patience and tells him off. Piku stares at Bhaskor wordlessly, her face strained. You can read so much in her pained gaze: gratitude towards Rana for saying what she could never, sympathy for her father, guilt for wanting to be the one yelling at him. It also serves to illustrate the film’s central quandary: Are we duty-bound to sacrifice our happiness for our parents?

If only Sircar and Chaturvedi hadn’t tried to do for shit what they did for sperm. Their first and best film, Vicky Donor, was about a man who realises his seed is extremely fertile and becomes a successful donor. But ‘sperm’ is still a relatively taboo thing to repeatedly say in a Bollywood film. Joking about constipation and doing one’s business is more juvenile than transgressive. Piku may be a film about difficult fathers and dutiful daughters and charming taxi stand owners, but audiences are likely to leave with crap on their minds.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Jauja: Review

Lisandro Alonso’s film opens with a paragraph on the expeditions that had set out to find the mythical, elusive land called Jauja. “With time, the legend grew disproportionately,” it reads. “People were undoubtedly exaggerating, as they usually do.” The sly Borgesian kick of “as they usually do” is a hint that Jauja will shift its mental landscape to suit itself, and the viewer must either shift with it or abandon ship and find something a little more explicable.

In an unnamed rocky wasteland in Argentina in the 1880s, a Danish captain, Gunnar Dinesen (Viggo Mortensen), is travelling with his 15-year-old daughter Ingeborg (Viilbjørk Malling Agger). Their party includes a couple of soldiers, including a young man that Ingeborg is in love with. Where they’re going, we have no idea; it’s unclear if Gunnar himself does. The film seems poised to become ‘about something’ when Ingeborg runs off with the soldier and Gunnar sets off alone in search of her. But even with an actual quest at hand, there’s little direction to our knight’s travels. The rumoured presence in the parts of an ex-soldier who now wears women’s clothes and commands a small militia adds to the atmosphere of surreal unease.

All this would be difficult to watch if there wasn’t someone as intriguing as Mortensen at its centre. The actor grew up in Argentina, where he learnt to speak Spanish. He speaks both Danish and Spanish here, though he spends most of his time onscreen in silence. One of the infrequent but unparalleled joys of cinema is the chance to watch great actors just sit in one place and think. Alonso affords us every opportunity to do this, training a static camera on Mortensen for what seems like minutes at a time.

Alonso, an Argentine director and screenwriter, has said that Jauja is his variation on a Western. There are hints of the Western mythology here: the local tribes here are derisively clubbed as ‘Coconuts’, just as the Native Americans were all ‘Indians’; and Gunnar’s search for his daughter has obvious parallels with John Wayne’s mission in The Searchers. Other, less obvious movies seem to haunt Jauja as well, like L’Avventura, in which events set in motion by one woman’s disappearance lose their momentum and purpose, and Aguirre, the Wrath of God, another film about a father travelling with his daughter that examines the mania of white settlers in Latin America. There’s also a suggestion of the deadpan humour of Aki Kaurismäki, a connection made flesh by the presence of Timo Salminen, the Finnish director’s regular cinematographer, behind the camera.

Though the film seems to comment on its mythical quality through a remarkable visual device – the corners of the screen are curved, like a vintage photograph – this could just be another attempt to wrong-foot its audience, to suggest a legend where nothing but confusion exists. I wouldn’t want to spoil the film’s final stretch for you by discussing it in detail, so I’ll just say that it results in an already elusive film becoming even more elliptical and subtly transgressive. “I have a feeling this has happened before,” Ingeborg remarks at one point. It’s this feeling of inevitability, of people as characters in some cosmic play, which makes Jauja such a puzzle and such a delight.

This review appeared in Mint. 

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Katti Batti: Review

If Katti Batti didn’t go spectacularly off the rails, the worst thing one could say about it would be that it bears an unacknowledged debt to Marc Webb’s (500) Days Of Summer. The trailer had pretty much prepared people for this, but director Nikhil Advani has since stated in interviews that his film is not a version of the winsome 2009 romcom starring Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. I suppose it’s possible that two people could independently come up with a film about a diffident guy who falls for a tempestuous girl, realizes she isn’t in it for the long haul, breaks up with her, goes into a deep depression and is counselled by a mouthy younger sister. It’s a little unlikely, though.

Even if you can’t shake off the memory of Webb’s film, the first 45 minutes or so are fluent and fun. Advani works up a blithe, brisk rhythm as he introduces Madhav (Imran Khan) and Payal (Kangana Ranaut)—both a little old now to pass off as college kids—and has them fall in love in a few quick scenes. There are little flourishes one might not expect—a song blending live action and stop motion, a subverted “hero” moment perfectly tailored to Khan’s apologetic star persona. We go back and forth in time, from Madhav’s recollections of their romantic history to his abject, lovelorn present.

For a while, the film seems all too willing to place the blame for the relationship’s demise on Payal, while ignoring Madhav’s whininess and lack of conviction (Devdas, patron saint of self-debasing Indian male lovers, is rightly referenced). Later, it does try to redress the balance, but this is still very much a male-perspective film. Payal remains a cipher, because we’re only seeing her through Madhav’s fervent eyes. That, of course, is the film-maker’s prerogative, but there are other signs that the film’s sexual politics may be skewed—the most flagrant of which is when Madhav’s friend sends pictures of him in bed with a girl to Payal’s new fiancé, to prove some point which eludes me.

Just when Madhav is in danger of wearing out audience sympathy with his weepy persistence, Advani pulls out what he probably thinks is an ace. The film suddenly changes tack, but none of it makes sense—tonally, logically. It’s almost like the director decided to graft one of his popular early films on to the indie film everyone knew he was adapting. I won’t spell it out, but considering where it ends up, the film could really be called “500 Days Of Bummer”.

Because there’s no effort made to develop any characters besides Madhav and (to a lesser extent) Payal, there aren’t any supporting performances to speak of. Khan is fine in the courting scenes—offhand charm comes easily to him—but isn’t a theatrical enough performer to make Madhav’s wallowing very interesting. Ranaut, lacking the sort of definition she’s had in her last few roles, is rarely as enigmatic as the film needs her to be, though she finds her poise in the closing minutes. After Queen, Revolver Rani and Tanu Weds Manu Returns, it’s the first film she’s done which isn’t really interested in her, and it shows.

This review appeared in Mint. 

Black Mass: Review

The Boston crime film constitutes a small but colourful subgenre within the larger universe of the gangster film, arguably Hollywood’s greatest contribution to cinema. Most of these mob films, which range from The Departed to The Boondock Saints, are populated by tough-talking men of Irish extraction. And a good many of them are founded on themes of loyalty and friendship—honour among thieves, as it were.

Loyalty is a word tossed around a lot in Black Mass, Scott Cooper’s film on notorious gang boss James “Whitey” Bulger and his relationship with FBI agent John Connolly. Bulger rose from a low-level hood in the mid-1950s to the top of the Boston gang hierarchy in the 1980s. This rise was abetted by the fact that, unbeknownst to most of his gang members, he had turned informant for the FBI in 1975—encouraged by Connolly, whom he knew since the latter was a boy growing up in the same neighbourhood. The film shows Connolly passing on information about Bulger’s rivals in exchange for tips. By the time Bulger was arrested in 2011, Connolly had already been charged and sent to prison.

If all this sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because The Departed used several details of the Bulger case to ground its tale of twin moles. Black Mass is less frenetic than Martin Scorsese’s film. Cooper, director of Crazy Heart and Out Of The Furnace, favours the slow burn over the sudden conflagration. Besides Whitey (Johnny Depp) and Connolly (Joel Edgerton), there are a number of recurring characters, among them Whitey’s brother, Senator William Bulger (Benedict Cumberbatch); Connolly’s morally conflicted partner, John Morris (David Harbour); Whitey’s right-hand man, Stephen Flemmi (Rory Cochrane); and Connolly’s wife, Marianne (Julianne Nicholson). There are also several brief appearances by key players in the Bulger story, including a haunting one by Peter Sarsgaard as Brian Halloran, an ill-fated business partner of Whitey’s.

For a gangster film, Black Mass isn’t terribly exciting: It lacks the cheerful invective of The Departed or the masterful set pieces of The Town. Cooper directs with few flourishes, but he has a talent for atmosphere and for letting the tension in a room build. He never allows us to lose sight of how dangerous and unromantic a figure Bulger is, and how in awe of him Connolly remained. By putting words like “loyalty” and “tradition” in their mouths, he exposes the hollowness behind this self-serving rhetoric. Friendship is a sham and everyone’s out to make life easier for themselves, whether it’s Bulger’s lieutenants giving the federal agents evidence against him, or Whitey brutally disposing of Flemmi’s moll because he suspects that the police knows she’s involved with them.

Seeing Depp in a strange wig, buried under a few thousand dollars of make-up, has become a trial in recent years, but once you get used to his receding hairline and piercing grey eyes, it becomes easier to appreciate his performance. Depp’s Whitey is violent, wary and unpredictable, a far cry from the glamorous mobster he played in Public Enemies. Edgerton, all fake charm and bluster, is a good foil—the Australian actor is a far more convincing Bostoner than Cumberbatch, whose accent keeps slipping. Harbour, Cochrane and Nicholson are terrific, but I would urge you to look out for the charged scenes involving Dakota Johnson (as Lindsey Cyr, Whitey’s girlfriend) and Juno Temple (as Deborah Hussey, Flemmi’s moll). In a very male-dominated film, these are the scenes that haunted me later on.

Meeruthiya Gangsters: Review

Recently, news emerged that Zeishan Quadri, who co-wrote and played that singular sociopath, Definite, in Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs Of Wasseypur, has been tapped to direct a sequel to the 2012 film. Meeruthiya Gangsters gives us an idea what that might look like. Quadri’s first outing as director is like a low-rent Wasseypur. The setting’s been changed from small-town Jharkhand to small-town Uttar Pradesh, but the blending of humour and violence and everyday life in north India is much the same. Other factors contribute to the Wasseypur hangover—the presence of Jaideep Ahlawat (he played Shahid Khan in Kashyap’s film), the sweeping camera movements, even the background music, which at times apes Sneha Khanwalkar’s score.

The film begins with a scene so transparently ambitious and completely wrong that it’s a wonder no one counselled the young director against it. The camera approaches the table at which the protagonists are sitting, and starts to whirl around it. This is a shot used fairly often by young film-makers, most of whom have learnt it from Quentin Tarantino movies. It’s a nice little trick if you can do it right, but Quadri misjudges the speed. It’s too fast, and instead of inducing the desired effect, all the movement does is call attention to itself. And it just doesn’t stop—we’re whirled around the table for what seems like 3 minutes.

Things calm down a little after that, and we are slowly able to tell one gangster from another. Quadri’s writing is still sharper than many of his Bollywood peers, and he gives Amit (Aakash Dahiya), Nikhil (Ahlawat), Sunny (Shadab Kamal), Sanjay Foreigner (Jatin Sarna), Gagan (Vansh Bhardwaj) and Rahul (Chandrachoor Rai) quirks, small identifying details, hints of personalities. We see the six of them go from minor extortion and strong-arming to robbery and kidnapping in Meerut and its surrounding areas. Yet, even as the ante is upped, the stakes remain low—there’s no urgency to the crimes, which are committed almost offhandedly. Nor is there much urgency on the part of police inspector R.K. Singh (Mukul Dev), the closest the film comes to giving our boys a serious rival.

There’s some fun to be had just watching the hoodlums sit around, cuss and talk about guns, their romantic entanglements or the relative merits of waving a shirt or underclothing as a white flag. The largely unknown cast is believably ornery, with funny turns from the drawling, long-haired Dev and the blond Sarna, and Ahlawat proving yet again that he has the charisma necessary for bigger, better roles. But the plot goes nowhere and the camera goes everywhere—there’s a tracking shot or an unusual angle in almost every scene, giving the impression that Quadri is straining for effect. There’s also little of the sociological and historical context that underpinned the equally violent and jocular Wasseypur. Still, there’s just enough here to suggest that Quadri has a future as a screenwriter. Direction, though, may require a little work.

This review appeared in Mint.

Hero: Review

Subhash Ghai’s Hero released in 1983 and launched the careers of Jackie Shroff and Meenakshi Seshadri. It was a huge hit then, though by today’s standards it’s nearly impossible to watch. It’s easy to make fun of a film which ends with a scene that has Shroff fighting in a pink motorcycle helmet after saving Seshadri’s honour. But have things improved for our commercial film-making in 32 years? Nikhil Advani’s Hero—a remake produced by Ghai and Salman Khan—suggests that we still can’t string together a half-decent action sequence. We’re still stuck with fathers slapping their daughters, and the recipients of those slaps forgiving the perpetrators too easily. And we still have young lovers in the heat of passion kissing each other on the eyelids (I counted four of those).

Apart from a few tweaks, the story of Advani’s Hero is much the same as the earlier film. Sooraj (Sooraj Pancholi) is a hoodlum with a heart—he beats up people for a living but is generous with the money he’s paid for doing that. He meets Radha (Athiya Shetty) at a club, and does what male leads in Bollywood are supposed to: dance with her, teach her a small lesson in manners and beat up her ex. They part ways, but are thrown together when he’s sent to kidnap the inspector general’s daughter, who turns out to be Radha.

Though Sooraj initially convinces Radha that he’s a policeman who has spirited her away because there’s a threat to her life, she eventually finds out what he does. But they’re in love, so she decides to stick with him. However, her father (Tigmanshu Dhulia) is understandably opposed to their union. So Sooraj decides to turn himself in, just as his criminal mentor and father figure Pasha (played by Sooraj’s real-life father, Aditya Pancholi) escapes the police’s clutches. Things get really weird thereafter. Sooraj goes to prison, Radha to Paris. She invents a fiancé at random to appease her father; that man turns out to be another gangster. Pasha employs Radha’s fiancé to kill Sooraj, who has been released from jail and has opened a gym, and so on.

It’s unlikely anyone in this day and age could have made a totally convincing film with material like this, but Hero is dragged down further by pedestrian writing, unremarkable music and patchy direction. Its two leads are second-generation Bollywood—Athiya is Suniel Shetty’s daughter—and neither make much of a case for star kids being awarded debut vehicles. Sooraj Pancholi is earnest but hardly commanding. He’s a good dancer, is soulful and has a fairly handy way with dialogue, but you still wouldn’t pick him out in a crowd. Athiya Shetty rarely seems at ease on screen; Advani should have noticed that she gets squeaky and that she has evident trouble with many of her lines (to be fair, she has to say rubbish like “dork face muppet”).

Ghai may no longer be relevant to today’s film-making scene, but there was one thing he was undeniably good at—spotting talent in young actors and taking a chance on them. It’s what made the original Hero and so many of his other films exciting for audiences at the time. Modern-day Bollywood, packed to the gills with star sons and daughters, may have to adopt some of his pioneer spirit if it wants a fresh set of idols to replace the Khans.

This review appeared in Mint. 

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Welcome Back: Review

At some point during Welcome Back, my spirit left my body and soared over the heads of the stricken audience in the theatre. I looked down at them as they checked their phones, clutched their hair, wondered how Anees Bazmee could have been allowed to make films for 20 years now. I could see myself crumpled in a corner, glaring at someone behind me who had the gall to find what was happening on screen funny. Then John Abraham said, “Aaj kisses, kal missus”, and I was transported back to the desert of the real.

I’ve never attended journalism school, but I gather one of the things they tell you is not to open a film review with an out-of-body experience. I apologize, but then again, who says this is a film? I’ve seen CCTV footage of elevators that is more cinematic. Slugs inching their way across asphalt have more narrative drive than this. Daylight robberies would be funnier.

Bazmee is, of course, no stranger to daylight robberies, having masterminded ones like Ready and Singh Is Kinng. He’s also responsible for 2007’s Welcome, in which Anil Kapoor and Nana Patekar play gangsters called Majnu and Uday, who pretend to go straight so that they can get their sister married to a “respectable boy”, the nephew of one Dr Ghungroo (Paresh Rawal). In Welcome Back, the joke’s on them (though all jokes are really on the viewer)—another sister, Ranjhana (Shruti Haasan), has to be married off, but the man she’s in love with, Ajju Bhai (John Abraham), is as big a criminal as they used to be (he’s also Ghungroo’s stepson).

Over its cruelly prolonged 150-minute running time, Welcome Back treats human intellect with the sort of disdain that’s remarkable even for Bollywood. It’s not just that these are old gags; they’ve been repurposed so lazily that you can see the actors tiring of a scene even as they perform it. The screen is dense with characters—in addition to the ones mentioned above, there’s Wanted Bhai (Naseeruddin Shah) and his son Honey (Shiney Ahuja), and the mother-daughter grifter team of Dimple Kapadia and Sakshi Maggo—but the plotting is convoluted and increasingly ridiculous. Abraham, his I’m-so-gorgeous grin an awkward match with his bhai accent, Kapoor and Haasan are locked in a deadly three-way struggle for the crown of the film’s biggest ham, but then Shah enters the picture as the blind Wanted Bhai and walks away with top honours (or dis-honours).

If Welcome Back’s crimes against the ear are unforgivable, almost as grave are its sins against the eye. If there’s a tackier-looking film than this made in the country in the last five years, I’m yet to see it. The film’s supposed to be set in Dubai, but it really seems to take place on the sets of a bad jewellery ad from the 1980s. I’m not one to dwell on crimes of fashion but Ahuja’s pink jacket and Maggo’s gold-lamé dress should have come with a little advisory, like those no-smoking warnings. The tackiness extends to the special effects: the climactic sequence, which takes place in the desert, has exploding remote-controlled mini-helicopters, two camel stampedes and a dust storm. It also has a blind man regaining his sight, which is ironic, considering Welcome Back is likely to make you want to claw your eyes out.

This review appeared in Mint.

Perfecting Pyaasa

Over the past eight months, some rather lovely work has been going on in the decidedly un-lovely environs of Thakkar Industrial Estate in Lower Parel, Mumbai. It’s in this decrepit compound that you’ll find the headquarters of film production and distribution company Ultra. And it’s in their labs that Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa has been restored to what Ultra Media & Entertainment chairman and managing director Sushilkumar Agrawal claims is its original screening condition. The restored version will screen in the Classics section at the Venice Film Festival this fortnight, alongside Sergei Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky, Akira Kurosawa’s Red Beard, Ernst Lubitsch’s Heaven Can Wait and other landmark films.

This isn’t, as Agrawal claims, the first time a film restored in India has made it to the line-up of a major film festival. Mrinal Sen’s Khandahar, restored by Reliance MediaWorks in Mumbai, was shown at Cannes in 2010; and in 2013, Satyajit Ray’s Charulata, restored in Mumbai’s Pixion Studios, was also screened there. Still, this restoration (and the nod from Venice) is welcome news. Few Indian films are as beloved as Pyaasa. Countless viewers here regard it as the fullest expression of poetry and film craft in Hindi cinema. And it’s also a popular means of initiation for foreign critics and cinephiles looking to acquaint themselves with the mysteries of Bollywood.

Ultra was founded by Agrawal in 1982. It began as a home video company, producing VHSes, and later, DVDs and Blu-Rays, while also diversifying into production and theatrical distribution. In the latter half of the 2000s, Agrawal realized that a Blu-Ray-watching public would no longer accept the awful, shaky, scratchy versions of old Hindi films it had been shown for decades. TV channels had also started asking for restored versions of classic films. So he started putting together an in-house restoration lab. By 2009, it was operational. As of today, Ultra has restored some 300 titles from its library. These have all been standard or high-definition restorations, fine for TV viewing but not for bigger screens. Pyaasa is their first 2K restoration—the kind that can play in a movie theatre.

This restoration was undertaken with the aim of sending it to a major film festival, Agrawal says. “We wanted to promote Indian classic films. And we wanted to promote our restoration lab, because there is a lot of restoration work available in foreign countries. Especially in Europe, the people are very, very into the classic films.” Agrawal actually had the Classics section at Cannes in mind, but they couldn’t complete the restoration in time. Venice, the world’s oldest film festival, was the next logical choice.

Ultra had already acquired the rights for all Guru Dutt films from the director’s son, Arun Dutt. Agrawal procured the original camera negative of Pyaasa from the National Film Archive of India, where it is stored. He also arranged for 35mm prints of the film “from here and there”, to substitute the portions where the original (which had “deteriorated from the VHS quality we got 25 years ago, but in good condition”) was too damaged. Restoration proper began in the early days of 2015. A digital transfer was made from the camera negative. More than 200,000 frames were then cleared of scratches, pinholes, flickering, green patches, thick lines. Sound posed less of a problem, with stray clicks, hisses and thumps being removed. The entire process took around four months.

One recurring (and difficult to pinpoint) problem with film restoration projects is the tendency to overcompensate, to buff up images to levels the original wouldn’t have had. To try and counter this, Agrawal sought the opinion of lower-rung technicians who had worked on Pyaasa and of experts who had seen the film when it released in 1957. One of the people approached was director Govind Nihalani, a former assistant of Pyaasa cinematographer V.K. Murthy, who advised them about the kind of lighting that would have existed in the 1950s. “Our intention was to get it close to the original,” Agrawal says, “not add something to make it better than that.”

Agrawal wouldn’t reveal how much this project cost them, though he says a 2K restoration usually involves a budget of Rs 30-50 lakh. Had the project been undertaken abroad, it would have been a lot more expensive —not just because of the higher calibre of technicians but also because major restoration projects abroad involve extensive research and consultation (a case in point is Janus Films’ painstaking restoration of the Apu trilogy). Ultra has been able to offer restoration services at a comparatively lower cost to companies like Rajshri and Mukta Arts; they’ve even handled a couple of foreign projects. “We aren’t sure whether the techniques used in our restoration process are also used abroad,” Agrawal said in a 2014 interview to Variety. “However, we are definitely competitive in terms of our quality and the prices we offer.”

Ultra could not show us any scenes from the restored Pyaasa, so there’s very little to go by as far as judging the quality of the transfer is concerned. There are stills like the ones reproduced on this page, a trailer of sorts for the restored film, and a before-and-after clip from the song "Jaane Kya Tune Kahi". The images certainly seem to have been cleaned up; beyond that, it’s extremely difficult for anyone who isn’t an expert to say whether they’re in the spirit of the original or have been spruced up too much. It’s unlikely that questions of fidelity to Dutt’s vision will bother, or even occur to, most people. But Agrawal knows that it’s his restoration that’s on display now, as much as the film itself. And it’s important to look closely at process and outcome, just as it’s important to recognize and laud Ultra’s promotion of our cinematic past.

This piece appeared in Mint Lounge. 

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Phantom: Review

Whether you find yourself in a patriotic frenzy by the time Phantom ends will depend on where you stand on the idea of revenge—or, to be more specific, the idea of nations avenging themselves on each other. Whether you believe it was justified for the US government to send forces to Pakistan to kill Osama Bin Laden. Whether you think their doing so gives India the licence to do the same. If scenarios such as these sit well with you, you’ll find a lot to like in Kabir Khan’s latest film, an adaptation of S. Hussain Zaidi’s Mumbai Avengers.

Zaidi’s novel, published earlier this year, is about a team of five Indian agents assigned to hunt down and kill the perpetrators of the 26/11 attacks. The film boils that team down to one person—a shadowy ex-armyman named Daniyal Khan (Saif Ali Khan). Khan is tapped for this mission by Research and Analysis Wing, who have been expressly forbidden by the government to mount any covert operations, but go ahead with one anyway. Wary, but also eager for redemption—he was dismissed from the army on charges of desertion—Khan takes it on. Thus begin the assassinations, first in London, then Chicago, Syria and Pakistan. Along the way, Daniyal acquires a helper in Nawaz Mistry (Katrina Kaif), an ex-RAW agent who’s with a private security firm, but only until her latent patriotism kicks in.

The first murder—by way of a lighted stove—has a setup that’s reminiscent of Munich, which led me to wonder whether Phantom might also turn out to be a meditation on the double-edged sword that is state-sponsored vengeance, as Steven Spielberg’s film was. This was not to be: Daniyal doesn’t seem in the least affected by all the killing at close quarters that he’s doing, and the film does no introspecting either. This is Baby by way of Zero Dark Thirty, pushing in favour of vigilante solutions, presenting acts of revenge as both just and justified.

Still, when Phantom is on song, things fall into place very satisfyingly. Kabir Khan and his co-writers Kausar Munir and Parveez Sheikh build the assassinations carefully, from the ground up. The frequent cross-cutting between events is handled very well by editor Aarif Sheikh. The unhurried build-up to the parallel murders in Lahore is especially impressive for the number of the moving parts it brings into play and then deploys. But Khan can’t quite pull off the big action set-pieces: the tension built up in Lahore is squandered with a Rambo-like finish, while the gunfight in Syria is confusingly staged and, despite the best efforts of cinematographer Aseem Mishra, a dusty mess.

As Daniyal, Saif Ali Khan is lethal and dour—impressive as a killing machine but impossible to feel anything for. Kaif tries really, really hard, and it seems fair to leave it at that. (Why anyone thought she’d do justice to a scene in which she has to pretend to be pregnant is mystifying.) There are talented actors on the sidelines— Mohammed Zeeshan Ayubb as the RAW employee who comes up with the plan, Ashwath Bhatt and Denzil Smith as ISI agents—with little to do, though there’s an affecting cameo by the person playing the Pakistani café owner who helps Daniyal and Nawaz.

In an unusual turn of events, two Kabir Khan films have released in theatres in the last month and a half, each with contrasting visions of Pakistan and cross-border relations. Phantom would seem to be the one that hews closer to real life—after all, it has David Coleman Headley and Hafiz Saeed (changed to Harris Saeed) and dozens of references to actual events. But it’s important to recognise that they’re both fantasies: of good vibes and cooperation in Bajrangi Bhaijaan’s case, and of bad vibes and old-fashioned vengeance in Phantom’s. And it’s quite possible that a lot of the people who cheered for Indo-Pak goodwill in Bajrangi will end up applauding the chest-beating, flag-waving Phantom.

This review appeared in Mint.

Ricki and the Flash: Review

Jonathan Demme has had a long and, at times, fascinating career. He began as an exploitation director in the Roger Corman stable. For a decade after that, he made wry, idiosyncratic films including Melvin and Howard, Swing Shift and Something Wild. He hit the big time in 1991 with the Oscar-winning The Silence of the Lambs, and two years later, Philadelphia. There was nothing of note for a while after that, but he returned in 2008 with the well-received Rachel Getting Married. In between, he’s also managed to direct more concert films (including the Talking Heads classic Stop Making Sense) than any other major Hollywood director.

Demme’s latest isn’t a concert film, but it is a musical of sorts. At its centre is Ricki (Meryl Streep), an ageing singer who works days at a department store and sings at night in a five-piece band called Ricki and the Flash. They’re a small-time outfit, playing classic rock and the occasional Gaga or Pink cover in bars. After one performance, Ricki gets a call from her ex-husband, Pete (Kevin Kline), who informs her that their daughter, Julie, is being divorced and is in bad shape. Would she come and visit?

It transpires that Ricki walked out on her husband, daughter and two sons to pursue her dream of being a rock star years ago, and has been virtually absent from their lives ever since. After some dithering, she does go and visit them, and the film tries to wring comedy from the sight of the 66-year-old Streep, in leather, with eye make-up and half her hair braided, negotiating with some wonder a nouveau riche home. Streep is very broad in the film—you might be reminded of her Julia Child in Julie & Julia, though this kind of showboating is more in the vein of screwball turns like Carol Lombard’s in Twentieth Century.

Ricki and the Flash might have worked if it were a little more tough-minded, if it really explored what it was like to be a woman who gave up her family for work but found little success, but Demme and screenplay writer Diablo Cody are clearly in love with Ricki, and keep finding ways to make her loveable and sympathetic. Of all the characters introduced—in addition to Pete, Ricki and their children, there’s Pete’s second wife and Ricki’s guitarist boyfriend—the only one I felt for was Julie, played by Streep’s own daughter, Mamie Gummer, whose black humour stays intact even as she unravels. Her scenes with Streep are the best thing in the film, which, for the most part, seems to be searching for a solid reason to exist (apart from ‘Hey, that Meryl Streep can really sing’). So you’ll have to be content with little pleasures, like seeing Kline with his co-star from Sophie’s Choice; cameos and look-ins for old Demme favourites like Sister Carol and The Feelies; Streep’s Chrissie Hynde voice as she sings "Cold One".

This uninspired review appeared in Mint.