Thursday, January 21, 2016

The incomplete guide to Bollywood in 2015

Had written this year-end wrap-up piece for Mint Lounge. 

Instead of adding another best-of or worst-of list to the hundreds already out there, we decided to come up with our own categories. The idea was to identify, along with some larger trends, the smaller moments—a song, a line—that remained stuck in our heads long after we left the theatre.

Best casting against type
While Deepti Naval is too gifted an actor to be limited to a type, it’s safe to say no one associates her with “cold-blooded villain”. Which is why the moment in NH10 when it dawns on everyone that her character supports her son’s honour killing tendencies is the unkindest cut—both for Anushka Sharma’s character and the audience, who might have seen Naval and expected some respite.

Bizarre but effective lyric of the year
This one’s a tie. The first is "Banno tera swagger laage sexy", from Tanu Weds Manu Returns—a brilliantly kooky variation on the traditional "Banno Re Banno" wedding standard. The other is the play on words from Tamasha’s "Heer Toh Badi Sad Hai", rendered almost unintelligible by Mika’s enthusiastic delivery: "Pyaar ki lau mein itni jal gayi/ ki loo mein jaana mushkil hai".

Best put-down
Even by his standards, this was a great year for Salman Khan. First, he shocked everyone by appearing in a film that was halfway decent, Bajrangi Bhaijaan, which grossed over Rs 600 crore worldwide, a figure that made his other release of the year, Prem Ratan Dhan Payo, look like a middling success (it made Rs 200 crore in India). There was also the small matter of his being acquitted in the hit-and-run case that had dogged him for 13 years. Given his godfather-like image in Bollywood and the almost fanatical support he commands across the nation, it felt just a little subversive (and immensely satisfying) when, at one point in Bajrangi Bhaijaan, Nawazuddin Siddiqui shut a burqa-clad Khan up with a casual “Tu phir boli, begum?”

Most memorable minor character
You could take Sadhyaji, played by Pankaj Tripathy, out of Masaan without altering the story in any significant way. But it isn’t always the characters vital to the plot that stick in one’s mind. Some of my favourite scenes involve this musical voiced, talkative railway teller, whose fondness for Richa Chadha’s character is touchingly transparent. He also has two of the film’s best lines: the one about the number of trains coming and going from Banaras, and his response to Chadha asking if he lives alone: “I live with my father. He lives alone.” A confusing second passes before he clarifies that his father is alone during the day.

Best shakha-baiting
In a year of bitter religious divide, faith turned up surprisingly often onscreen. Dum Laga Ke Haisha was one such instance, providing a few rare moments of sweetness and wit. The film’s conception of a Haridwar shakha as a club for self-improvement-obsessed, archaic-phrase-spouting, shorts-wearing misfits is incisive but not mean-spirited. So straight-faced was the skewering that there were, for once, no protests from any of the usual suspects.

Most imaginatively choreographed number
Even as the traditional stop-everything-and-marvel number seems to be in decline (the exception being Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s films), directors are finding new ways to frame, choreograph and integrate their musical sequences. In "Dhadaam Dhadaam", Ranbir Kapoor and Anushka Sharma convey all the pathos that’s missing from the rest of Bombay Velvet. "Gallan Goodiyan" from Dil Dhadakne Do is a one-take that’s all the more impressive for looking so riotous. "Lip to Lip", from Katti Batti, is a live action/stop motion dream. But the most audacious is Detective Byomkesh Bakshy’s "Jaanam", in which director Dibakar Banerjee keeps his protagonist in the foreground while moving an immaculate recreation of 1940s Calcutta around behind him.

Best procedural scene
The direction, by Meghna Gulzar, is taut, and the cast, down to the most minor player, is superb, but it’s the writing that marks Talvar out as special. Vishal Bhardwaj’s script is as incisive, cynical and darkly funny as an episode of The Wire. All these qualities are evident in the long scene at the end when the two investigating teams are presenting their competing theories about the murder of Shruti Tandon. The atmosphere should be charged and serious, but instead, the cops seem as concerned with cracking wise about each other’s work as they are about the case they’re building. It ends, as do most things Bhardwaj, with poetry, as the officer hearing both versions invokes a line from a song in Gumrah: “Woh afsana jise anjaam tak lana na ho mumkin/ Usse ek khoobsurat mod dekar chhodna achchha” (That story that cannot be brought to a logical end may as well be ended on a good note), a quotation that can only be seen as savagely ironic.

Overripe dialogue of the year
Though the villain in Gabbar is Back yelling “I am a brand!” was pretty special, this line from Hamari Adhuri Kahani has it beat. When Emraan Hashmi’s hotelier first comes across Vidya Balan’s florist in the film, instead of saying “Hello” or “Nice weather” or even “Do you like my shoes?”, he comes up with “Beautiful. Inke liye toh main mar bhi sakta hoon.” He’s talking about the flowers she’s arranging, but the film takes him at his word, and he meets his end in a suspiciously CGI-looking field.

Character you hate yourself for caring about
Though it was one of the year’s best, Titli was unremittingly bleak. The film wouldn’t have had quite the same impact without Ranvir Shorey’s searing turn as Titli’s elder brother. Vikram is full of impulses—most of them violent—which keep bubbling to the surface in ways that seem to cause him some pain and others around him a great deal of it. Whether he’s yelling at a delivery guy while also trying to have a conversation with his estranged wife and young daughter, or bursting into tears in the middle of beating Titli up, Vikram is completely unpredictable, reprehensible and fascinating.

Soundtrack most likely to endure
AR Rahman came up with two great tracks and a bunch of decent ones for TamashaDetective Byomkesh Bakshy suggested a bold new direction—of the compiled, rather than composed, soundtrack. Masaan had the terrific, folksy "Tu Kisi Rail Si" and "Mann Kasturi Re"—strong contenders for song of the year. But the album of 2015 was undoubtedly Bombay Velvet. Amit Trivedi compositions fused the jazz background of its female lead with the 1960s Bombay high society setting. With intelligent nods to the music of OP Nayyar and Shankar-Jaikishan, and with typically witty lyrics by Amitabh Bhattacharya, these are numbers that are likely to sound fresh and exciting decades later.

Best instances of Censor Board looking out for our moral health
Under Pahlaj Nihalani, the new Censor Board (actually the Central Board of Film Certification) took it upon themselves from preventing our collective modesties from being outraged. An internal memo with 27 prohibited swear words— ‘bastard’ etc. —was leaked. (They have since claimed to have put this on hold.) NH10 was released with nine cuts out of an initially suggested 30. Fifty Shades of Grey was banned altogether; Spectre’s kisses were deemed too inflammatory for an Indian audience and were removed. ‘Lunch’ was censored in Angry Indian Goddesses. But the unkindest cut was muting the word ‘lesbian’ in Dum Laga Ke Haisha, an indication, if ever there was one, of the blinkered, medieval mindset of those in charge of our film certification.

Addendum: My top 11 Indian films released in theatres in 2015
Kakka Muttai
Bajirao Mastani
Detective Byomkesh Bakshy
Dum Laga Ke Haisha

The Danish Girl: Review

Einar Wegener (Eddie Redmayne) is living what appears to be a satisfying life. He’s a known landscape painter, well-regarded on the 1920s Copenhagen art scene, and has a lovingly charged relationship with his wife, Gerda (Alicia Vikander), also a painter. Indeed, the only signs that something might be roiling beneath the surface is when he casts nervous glances at frilly dresses. Later, he models stockings and heels for his wife, and one can clearly see the impact it’s having on him. Before long, Einar’s secret is out: He likes to dress up as a woman.

Once she finds out, Gerda indulges what she assumes are Einar’s fetishes. She paints several portraits of her husband in dresses and make-up, which bring her a measure of fame. She even encourages him to appear as Lili, a fictional cousin, at a party. These deceptions are successful, but to Gerda’s dismay, after a while Einar cannot turn Lili on and off. Once he’s lived the life he believes he was meant to—that of a woman—he can’t go back to being a husband and a man. Which leads to a historic moment: one of the first gender-reassignment surgeries, in which Einar’s male parts are replaced by female ones, so that he is able to truly live as Lili.

The Danish Girl is based on a 2000 novel of the same name by David Ebershoff, a fictionalized account of Lili and Gerda’s true story. Lili’s gender change in 1931, chronicled in her book Man Into Woman, made her an LGBT icon in the years following her death, and it’s perhaps inevitable that a film on her life would be made and released at the height of the awards season. Tom Hooper’s adaptation is the kind of work one might politely call 'mannered', or, not so politely, Oscar-bait. The silences are calculated to the millisecond. The emotions are so programmed that there’s hardly room to breathe. Everything is pretty and perfect and touching. All that’s missing is life itself.

This may seem like an unfair charge against a film that treats a subject like gender confusion with great sensitivity. But it’s this sensitivity that suffocates the scenes, especially if you contrast it with something like Xavier Dolan’s Laurence Anyways, another film about a man who knows that he is actually a woman. That film is everything The Danish Girl isn’t: rude, messy, provocative, frustrating, moving. And it’s not just the way the scenes in Hooper’s film unfold, it’s how they look. Mike Leigh’s Mr Turner—another recent period film about a painter—managed to convey the beauty of its landscapes and the experience of brush on canvas with infinitely more feeling and energy.

By the end, with Lili getting her coveted, though ultimately fatal, surgeries and Gerda providing vital support, the film becomes a succession of whispered lines and artful silences. I knew that I was supposed to be moved, to appreciate the pathos of Vikander and Redmayne’s performances. Instead, I felt like the film’s protagonist—trapped, and eager for release.

Wazir: Review

Three films into his career, Bejoy Nambiar has shown a fondness for slo-mo that verges on John Woo-dom. Wazir begins with an entire song in slo-mo, showing the engagement and marriage of ATS officer Danish (Farhan Akhtar) and dancer Ruhana (Aditi Rao Hydari). By the end of the song, they have a child. Their life looks blissful—and if movies have taught us anything, it’s that this much happiness early on in a film means something awful is about to happen. Sure enough, when Danish is out with his family in the next scene, he sees a suspicious-looking car. Daughter in tow (Ruhana has stepped out), he follows it and finds himself being shot at by terrorists. He manages to scare off his attackers, but his little girl catches a bullet and dies in hospital.

As with Nambiar’s first film, Shaitan, one bad decision begets another, and Danish, high on sleep medicines, turns up unannounced during a raid on the terrorists’ hideout. As a result, he’s suspended from the force. It’s at this point that he’s contacted by Omkarnath Dhar (Amitabh Bachchan), a wheelchair-bound chess teacher whom everyone knows as Panditji. Panditji tells Danish that he recently lost a daughter as well and invites the young man to come play chess with him. They become friends, and Panditji soon confides that he believes his daughter’s death—a fall down a flight of stairs—was actually murder. He suspects Yazaad Qureshi (Manav Kaul), a politician from Kashmir, in whose Delhi house the girl died.

Here’s where Wazir goes off the rails. We know Qureshi is guilty because the film shows us that. But Panditji has nothing to go on except the look in Qureshi’s eyes on the day of the accident. And Danish not only takes up Panditji’s case without any questions, he manages to mobilize state resources—while still suspended!—against a seemingly blameless public figure. Hindi cinema’s turn towards vigilantism isn’t a new thing, but it’s still disturbing how heroically it treats this instinct.

Even when Wazir is making little sense (which is fairly often), the pace never flags. The film’s writers are Vidhu Vinod Chopra and Abhijat Joshi, both of whom know a thing or two about crafting a fast-moving screenplay. Apart from a bizarre cameo by Neil Nitin Mukesh, the performances are appropriately dour (Akhtar), theatrical (Bachchan) and quietly menacing (Kaul). The only scenes that drag are the ones with Danish and Ruhana; Nambiar wants us to feel their pain, but we’re never given a sense of what they were like as a couple before tragedy stuck. As a result, their estrangement and rapprochement feel artful—a clenched jaw here, a reddened eye there—but uninvolving.

The film’s audience will doubtless prove brighter than Danish and figure out that there’s something more than shared tragedy that draws him and Panditji together. This 'something' is the big reveal of Wazir, and though it makes some dramatic sense, you must be prepared to have your credulity stretched like chewing gum. Nambiar’s previous films have suffered from screenplays that are less than clever. This one reaches for cleverness, which is just beyond its grasp, and that mars what could have been an unusually dour, taut thriller.

This review appeared in Mint. 

Chauranga: Review

Bikas Ranjan Mishra’s Chauranga screened at the Mumbai Film Festival in 2014. It won the India Gold award for best film there, but is only now being released in theatres. Those who saw Shlok Sharma’s Haraamkhor at the 2015 edition of the festival will feel at least a partial sense of déjà vu when they watch Mishra’s film. Though Haraamkhor centres on sexual politics and Chauranga on class and caste, they’re both gritty, coming-of-age tales set in sleepy hamlets, with similarly bleak world views and jarring, if somewhat unconvincing, endings.

Chauranga begins with Santu (Soham Maitra), a young Dalit boy, and Bajrangi (Riddhi Sen), his schoolgoing elder brother, being slapped and humiliated by two upper-caste louts. This is the first in a series of injustices that make up the majority of this film’s narrative. Though the film is stark and appropriately indie-ish, the characterizations are familiar: The Brahmins in this village are sadistic and sexually rapacious, the Dalits are servile and virtuous. Santu and Bajrangi’s mother, Dhaniya (Tannishtha Chatterjee), is the mistress of Dhaval (Sanjay Suri), the wealthy Brahmin overlord of the village. Dhaval is the sort of cruelly charismatic character who might have taken over a film like this, but the affable Suri can’t summon up the requisite shades. We’re never sure if Dhaval is classist and casteist but not entirely unfeeling (he pays Bajrangi’s school bills) or just an all-out terrible person (he smashes his daughter’s face into a mirror).

While the trailer plays up the unlettered Santu’s attempts to send a love letter to Dhaval’s daughter, this plot strand is never developed to any significant degree. Mishra instead focuses on injustices large and small: a blind priest (a scary Dhritiman Chatterjee) mercilessly beating a pig for straying into a temple compound; Santu riding the statue of Nandi (for him, it’s a bull, not a god); Dhaval’s long-suffering wife transforming into a “goddess”, of the sort shown in the recent Kajarya. The film suffers from what one might call excessive foreshadowing: If there’s a huge rock shown earlier, you can be sure it’ll play a part later on in the narrative.

This is Mishra’s first feature film; earlier, he ran the film website DearCinema. Apart from a couple of unnecessary reaction shots early on, he displays an unflashy, at times viscerally powerful, style. There’s no denying that the film is unflinching, unafraid to show Dalit village life as the series of compromises it often is. Had the performances been stronger, the accents more convincing and the ideas more novel, Chauranga might have achieved something like the dramatic power of recent Marathi-language films about childhood. The film ends with a young boy running for, and from, his life—a device favoured by first-time directors from François Truffaut to Vikramaditya Motwane. Here, it felt less than cathartic.

This review appeared in Mint. 

Saturday, January 16, 2016

The Hateful Eight: Review

When Quentin Tarantino trapped seven men in a warehouse for much of the running time of Reservoir Dogs all those years ago, he may have been guided by economic reality as much as his storytelling instincts. Today, 24 years later, he can make pretty much whatever he wants, so it’s intriguing to see him return to a similar scenario in The Hateful Eight. The budget is, of course, vastly inflated—$44 million to Reservoir Dogs’ $1.2 million—but the general idea, of gathering a bunch of dangerous people who don’t trust each other in one room, is much the same.

We have to get to the room first, though, and Tarantino takes his time reaching there. Even for a director known for his penchant for setting a scene and delaying the pay-off, this is carefully planned stuff. The first half, set some time after the Civil War in snowy Wyoming, US, is literally all build-up. We first meet Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), a bounty hunter who convinces John Ruth (Kurt Russell), another bounty hunter who’s transporting a fugitive, Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), to give him a ride in his carriage. Soon, they’ve taken on another passenger, a southern rebel army man named Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins). It’s like that most classic of Westerns, John Ford’s Stagecoach, only with a lot of cussing and nothing like a moral compass.

When a blizzard forces them to take shelter in a haberdashery (when was the last time you heard that word uttered in a film?), we’re introduced to the remaining hatefuls: a British-accented hangman, Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth); a mysterious cowboy, Joe Gage (Michael Madsen); a former Confederate general, Sanford Smithers (Bruce Dern); and a Mexican gent named Bob (Demián Bichir). And like that, we’re watching Reservoir Dogs as a Civil War Western, with a touch of Agatha Christie. To reveal more would be unfair, so all I’ll say is that while every character earns the appellation “hateful”, you’ll likely feel something like sympathy for each one before the film is over.

That each protagonist alternately engages and repels the audience is what makes The Hateful Eight an unsettling, startling film. Some of the scenes are among the most poignant Tarantino has ever written—like when Bob plays "Silent Night" on the piano and Warren and Smithers, black man and Confederate general, sit down and converse. Yet these scenes are often followed by moments of almost inhuman cruelty exhibited by the same characters. If that doesn’t sound like much fun, well, it often isn’t. Years of defending the violence in his films have hardened Tarantino’s stand on the issue; like Django Unchained, this film has a lurid, dare-you-to-blink quality that’s more than a little off-putting.

It’s when he isn’t trying to shock you—which, thankfully, is most of the film—that Tarantino sneaks in some of the best writing and direction of his career. There are the little tricks, such as the deliberate shift from shallow to deep focus in one scene, and big ones, such as “The Four Passengers” flashback chapter. Critics of his use of racial invective will find no reason to change their mind about the director here, but they should also note how, using a set-up as intricate as the King Kong riddle in Inglourious Basterds, he manages to comment on modern-day police violence against the black community in the US. Tarantino has waded into the race debate these last few years, and while one may find his methods difficult to swallow, it’s obvious that he’s sufficently moved by the issue to try and address it in his own bullheaded way.

All the principals have a great time delivering Tarantino’s chewy dialogue—Goggins, an under-appreciated actor best known for TV shows like The Shield and Justified, is especially funny. There’s certainly a lot of talk, and viewers with itchy fingers might find themselves reaching for their mobiles. I'd urge them to fight that impulse and concentrate instead on Robert Richardson’s cinematography or Ennio Morricone’s restrained score (closer to his giallo themes than his Westerns). But if you're not into Tarantino for the words, why are you watching him at all?

This review appeared in Mint.