Monday, May 30, 2016

Waiting: Review

When we first meet Tara (Kalki Koechlin), she’s being ribbed by her friends about a sanitary napkin commercial she’s appeared in. She isn’t amused. This could start a revolution, a new wave, she tells them. As so often happens, fate chooses a moment of hubris to throw her life out of whack. A couple of scenes later, Tara is in an upscale Kochi hospital, panicky and powerless. Her husband, Rajat (Arjun Mathur), to whom she has been married six weeks, has been in a road accident and is now in a coma. The next 48 hours will be crucial, she’s told.

Waiting could have stretched out Tara’s agony at this point, but instead it reveals the wry comic undercurrent that runs just beneath its themes of grief and duty. Tara strikes up a conversation with Shiv (Naseeruddin Shah), a retired professor, who tells her that all patients are handed the “48 hour” line. Pankaja (Suhasini Maniratnam), Shiv’s wife of 40 years, has been in a coma for the past eight months in the same hospital. He has been in Tara’s shoes and has learnt how to counter his grief through routine. He advises her to eat, sleep and take care of herself. Like him, she might be in for a long wait.

At first, Tara isn’t willing to be patient. She lashes out at the doctors, at Rajat’s colleague, at her absent friends; holes up in her hotel room. As Anu Menon’s film spells out in one of its less subtle scenes, she’s moving through the early stages of grief: denial, anger. Conversely, the moment she arrives (partially, at least) at “acceptance” is beautifully rendered. When she’s given the bag her husband had on him at the time of the accident, she rifles through its contents and puts on his watch. From that point on, it’s always on her wrist. She’s on his time now.

As Tara forces herself to wait, the film juxtaposes her situation with Shiv’s, who has become so used to waiting that he refuses to accept the prognosis of his wife’s unsentimental doctor, Nirupam (Rajat Kapoor), and take her off the ventilator. Tara has reason to be hopeful, but can’t stand being told to stay positive; Shiv has an abundance of hope with little basis in reality. Together, they would probably add up to one functional grieving person. But, as Waiting shows us, grief is difficult to share, and we watch as the two of them stumble and feel their way towards clarity.

Though there are a couple of deft ancillary character sketches—Rajat’s colleague, played by Rajeev Ravindranathan, is an especially winsome form of comic relief—Waiting mostly sticks close to Tara and Shiv. Even with a built-in excuse for sentiment, Menon isn’t overly concerned with endearing her characters to us. Over the course of the film, we are made privy to their memories and missteps and confessions, not just the prickly Tara’s, but the soft-spoken, courteous Shiv’s. This emotional intimacy is made literal by Neha Parti Matiyani’s camera, which repeatedly catches Shah and Koechlin in carefully framed close-ups. Shah bears up well under this scrutiny, but it’s Koechlin who makes the stronger impression, messy and profane in her anger, but also very funny when making fun of her older compatriot.

There are sequences that lack conviction—that feel like they have been inserted because they would belong to a film like this and not because they are right for this film. Tara and Shiv dancing in his flat might have been intended as a breather for the audience, but it’s tonally jarring and awkward. There’s also the junior doctor asking Dr Nirupam, “Are you meaning to play god?”, and him replying, “Sometimes, god is what our patients need,” which, even if true, need hardly be stated in such a Rajkumar Hirani-like manner. Yet, apart from a few wobbles, Waiting walks the line between emotional resonance and emotional manipulation skilfully. Hospitals, whether on the big or small screen, are usually used for their dramatic possibilities: IV demanded “stat”, failing hearts electro-shocked into life. How curious that someone glimpsed, in the same setting, the emotional possibilities of inaction, of waiting.

This review appeared in Mint.

Sriram Raghavan: A passion for pulp

Though Sriram Raghavan’s Raman Raghav was never released, it has had a surprisingly fruitful afterlife. For years, bootleg VHS tapes of the film, which is based on the crimes and eventual arrest of the Bombay serial killer Raman Raghav, were in circulation. Ram Gopal Varma saw it; this led to him producing the director’s first feature, Ek Hasina Thi. Last year, a special screening was organized by Drishyam Films. And Anurag Kashyap, who passed the film on to Varma, made his own version, Raman Raghav 2.0, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival this week.

Though it was shot on a budget that couldn’t even be described as shoestring, Raman Raghav has several of the preoccupations and themes that mark Raghavan’s later work. Like Ek Hasina Thi, Johnny Gaddaar and Badlapur, it borrows from both the hard-boiled crime film and noir traditions, creating an atmosphere of fractured mental states and moral collapse. We spoke to Raghavan about the film, noir in Indian cinema, and his love for Vijay Anand thrillers. Edited excerpts from an interview:

What led to the making of ‘Raman Raghav’?
It was the first proper thing I did after passing out from FTII (Film and Television Institute of India) in 1987. For two years, I was at the Indian Space Research Organisation—they used to make social empowerment films—and then I was offered this.

It was made on a very low, almost idiotic budget. It was supposed to be a video magazine, like the ones Lehren used to do at the time. It was meant for something called the Police Channel—there would be interviews with the cops and all. The producer wanted to make a set of 13. He made three or four, and then it kind of fell apart.

Why did you zero in on Raman as a subject?
There was a book by R.S. Kulkarni, who was the head of the crime branch. He wrote about the cases he had handled. I came across Raman’s story in that. Everything interested me about the guy. Unfortunately, he was dead by then but I met a lot of cops involved in the case. I also met the psychiatrist who had examined him. He told me, “Don’t treat him like a criminal, he was a sick man.” That hit me. After that, my whole script changed.

In ‘Badlapur’ as well, we begin to feel sympathy for a cold-blooded killer…
In fact, Nawazuddin [Siddiqui] had seen Raman Raghav on a bootleg VHS a long time back. When he told me this, I said we should do Badlapur like that, very raw.

Raghubir Yadav, who plays Raman, was, like you, a few years into his career then.
He was quite popular because of [the TV show] Mungerilal Ke Haseen Sapne. People didn’t know his movies so well. Massey Sahib nobody knew, but Mungerilal was a success. He used to have this comic sort of image, so the producers were worried about whether he would be any good. I thought he was fab. He’s the main reason you can watch the film today.

It’s a pretty brutal, unforgiving film. Did you have hopes of it being released?
That was my first film, so there was no such further thought. I was just happy I was getting a chance to make something. By then, we had done enough to know that you can turn out pretty bad stuff too, so we were just trying to get something good out there.

There’s one scene that’s dominated by a large ‘C.I.D.’ poster, with a ‘Jagte Raho’ poster in the background. Did you see a thematic link between these films and ‘Raman Raghav’?
Jagte Raho I wanted because it’s about a guy who’s mistaken for someone else by a lynch mob. And C.I.D. is a lovely poster. We were shooting the scene in Esel Studio, which was quite tacky. I remember wondering how we could make the scene a little interesting. The C.I.D. poster gave me Dev Anand’s eyes, which was a cheap thing, but fun.

‘Raman Raghav’ has many elements of a crime noir, with the incessant rain, the shadows, the opening confession, the fractured mental states. Were such films on your mind at the time?
I wanted very much to emulate the style of Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man. Raman Raghav was shot on location, but there are many stylistic things in it. I like this mixture of documentary and extreme stylization. Another movie I was conscious of at the time was Wim Wenders’ The Goalie’s Anxiety At The Penalty Kick. The whole minimalism of it hit me tremendously—it kept me on the edge. I wanted a lot of that here.

There were a lot of dark, rainy noirs in 1950s’ Hindi cinema. Were you an admirer of these films?
I’ve seen them all on the big screen. We used to have matinee shows when I was in school. All the old black and white movies used to come back, so I’ve seen C.I.D., Baazi, Taxi Driver, Aar-Paar...

You’ve also spoken about your love for Vijay Anand’s thrillers.
I think Johny Mera Naam was the first film of his I saw, when I was 10 or 12. It must have done some wonders, because I still enjoy it. When you’re a kid, you don’t know about style and all that. Now I can see the techniques he used and how advanced it is in terms of the cutting pattern.

You can see a shift from the Navketan noirs of the 1950s to the suspense thrillers of the late 1960s and 1970s. The fatalism is largely absent…
Absolutely. Johny Mera Naam, Teesri Manzil, Caravan—they are all more fun. I can’t think of many dark films, 1970s onwards. They are one or two. Have you seen Do Anjaane, with Amitabh Bachchan? That’s an odd film.

Your films have strong connections with pulp literature. You referenced James Hadley Chase in ‘Johnny Gaddaar’ and based ‘Badlapur’ on an Italian crime noir novel.
It probably started with Chase. Those weren’t exactly pulp but that was what was available. Chandler, Hammett came later. And I kept discovering more writers. Cornell Woolrich is a favourite of mine. I did one of his stories—unofficially, of course—on Saturday Suspense. It’s a story called "Nightmare", about a guy who has a vivid dream about having killed someone.

The cinematic meta-reference has become something of a trademark of yours after ‘Johnny Gaddaar’. How did the nods to ‘Johny Mera Naam’ and ‘Parwana’ come about in that film?
The references don’t come when you’re starting the script. It’s dangerous when that happens. In Agent Vinod, it may have happened like that a little bit, though this may also be me finding reasons for why it didn’t work.

As far as Johnny Gaddaar is concerned, this is what happened. Neil Nitin Mukesh’s father, Nitin Mukesh, asked me one day why the film is called what it is, doesn’t it sound a little B-grade? I said, that’s what I like about it; plus, I like Johny Mera Naam. But there’s no one called Johnny in this, there’s no connection, he said. This kept troubling me. I thought, I have to justify this title somehow. There’s one point in the film where Neil’s character has to give a fake name. We had already thought of Parwana playing there, so I figured let’s use Johny Mera Naam instead.

I had to really fight hard to get the rights to Parwana. Till the last minute, we weren’t sure if we would get them. We paid quite a sizeable amount for that.

What drove you to have a one-take song sequence that’s pure neo-noir in the midst of a big action movie like ‘Agent Vinod’?
We were shooting a lot of action in Riga. I went a little overboard—it was my first location, so I thought I should exploit it. It became pretty lengthy, 7-8 minutes of different things happening. Two scenes later, there was another requirement of an action sequence. I thought, forget the viewers, I’m getting bored of this action. Then I also had this song, "Raabta", which I loved and hadn’t been able to use. So I thought, screw the bloody action, let’s do it as a song sequence.

There’s a Vijay Anand film called Black Mail. It has a song called "Mile Mile Do Badan", in which two people consummate their relationship while being hunted by the baddies. So this song is going on in an action sequence. I remembered loving that, showing it to people.

The action has a fluid, dreamlike quality, like something John Woo might do.
Let me tell you something about that. I had been shooting Agent Vinod for a long time and there was a lot of chaos in different departments. In between, I was actually looking at John Woo action scenes and wondering how he enjoyed shooting them, since I wasn’t. There’s this interview where he’s talking about Hard Boiled, about a point in the shoot when the whole unit was uninspired. He figured that a single-take scene would fire everyone up, because the whole unit would be working as one. So he did this great sequence in the hospital. And I thought, wow, this is a great way to get my unit together.

Are you content with the perception of you as a genre director?
I’m pretty happy where I am. I would like to go even more specific with the genre stuff, like maybe a giallo. What does a giallo look like in today’s India? I love Franju’s Eyes Without A Face and Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In. I’m not talking about remaking those movies, but possibly finding a story here that has elements like that.

‘Badlapur’ was a box-office success in spite of its very dark tone. Do you think today’s audience can take a lot more compared to when you were starting out?
I think they are willing to check it out. For me, Badlapur is a terrifically emotional film. I won’t say that for many other so-called “dark subject” films released in the last five years. You may have something very dark, but if it’s not working as a movie, nothing can help you. But if the film comes together right, viewers today are definitely willing to go much further than they would earlier.

This interview appeared in Mint Lounge. 

Sunday, May 29, 2016

X-Men: Apocalypse: Review

Considering this is the third superhero movie in two months, you might be wondering if X-Men: Apocalypse is worth your time. Ask yourself this. Do you ever wonder why Professor Xavier went bald? Or how Scott Summers got his glasses? If the answers you desire are more complex than “receding hairline” and “nudged an old lady with his car”, then this might well be the film for you. It has answers to these and other burning questions: such as how is Quicksilver, Eastern European-sounding and dead at the end of Avengers: Age Of Ultron, alive, American and looking like Andy Warhol here?

The long answer is that the rights to Quicksilver are shared between the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the X-Men Universe, and both have different origin stories and conceptions of the character. The short answer, of course, is that no one in their right mind should care. I’m glad they featured him in some form, because Peter Maximoff/Quicksilver is responsible for the best sequence in the movie, in which time seemingly freezes as he zips around saving people from a collapsing building. It’s an expanded version of a similar scene from X-Men: Days Of Future Past—not the only borrowed idea in the movie, but done with humour and some style.

Like nearly every film in the franchise before this, a large part of Apocalypse is a recruitment drive, with new X-Men found and old ones resurrected. The world’s oldest mutant, En Sabah Nur, has awakened in Egypt after a five-and-a-half-millennia slumber, and apparently gotten out of the wrong side of the crypt. He is now called Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac, buried under blue prosthetics) and he wastes little time in finding his Horsemen—Grumpy, Bashful and Dopey (actually Famine, Pestilence and Death). And, on the non-apocalyptic side, there are younger versions of Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), Scott Summers/Cyclops (Tye Sheridan) and Kurt Wagner/Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee).

It takes about half the film to get the opposing forces ready. Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) is living a quiet life in Poland before he faces another loss in what has been an astonishingly unhappy life and reverts to being Magneto. His reappearance and the threat of Apocalypse draws Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) back to the school for mutants, where she and Charles Xavier/Professor X (James McAvoy), Hank McCoy/Beast (Nicholas Hoult) and Alex Summers/Havok (Lucas Till) fend off an attack by Apocalypse, while the new recruits battle an old enemy (old for us, that is). It all leads up to a giant battle in the desert between the reunited X-Men and Apocalypse—who, as his name suggests, is bent upon destroying humanity.

I went in expecting dull writing (“wreak havoc,” Xavier tells Havok) and uninspired direction (quick zoom-in signals important line about to be uttered), but what surprised me was the number of references to god in the film. Magneto sinks to his knees, raises his arms towards the heavens and shouts, “Is this what I am?” Nightcrawler makes the sign of the cross. Apocalypse notes that he’s been called Ra, Krishna and Yahweh. My guess is that Singer wants us to vaguely equate Apocalypse with ISIS: an ancient enemy from the Middle East, big on mind control, bent on establishing an ancient empire. Xavier even tells him, “You’re just another false god.” At least he doesn't say 'false prophet'.

This review appeared in Mint.

Sarbjit: Review

That Sarbjit favours emotional manipulation over restraint or logic is evident at several points, but one moment in particular stands out. After years of incarceration in a Pakistani jail, Sarbjit Singh (Randeep Hooda) will finally be set free. We see him emerge smiling from behind the guards at the border and cross over to the Indian side. As his sister, Dalbir (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan), wife Sukhpreet (Richa Chadha) and daughters rejoice, he kisses the ground. Then, without any noticeable change of perspective, we see a different person standing where he was. The Pakistanis have released another prisoner in his place, Sarbjit’s still in prison and the scene we’ve witnessed is a lie.

Imagine if director Omung Kumar had played this moment straight. It would have been a kick in the gut, to see hope fade from the faces of the family members once they realize their 22-year wait for Sarbjit isn’t over. But by going too far—by trying to wrench that extra tear from the viewer—Kumar and screenwriters Utkarshini Vashishtha and Rajesh Beri squander the emotional possibilities of the moment, initially confusing and then irritating the viewer. Which is also the story of the film at large.

In 1990, Sarabjit Singh, a farmer from Bhikhiwind, Punjab, crossed the India-Pakistan border and was arrested by authorities there. He was jailed and accused of spying for India and setting off blasts that killed 14 people in Lahore and Faisalabad. Though Singh denied these charges, he was found guilty and sentenced to death. The death sentence was stayed indefinitely in 2008, but he remained in jail there till 2013, when he was murdered, allegedly by other inmates.

In telling Sarabjit’s story, Kumar removes everything that might obstruct the viewer’s sympathy. The possibility that Sarabjit might have been a spy—as an unnamed source told the Hindustan Times in 2013—isn’t entertained; neither is the rumour that he converted to Islam while in prison. These stories might not be true, and even if they are, Kumar has every right to exclude them if they run counter to the spirit of the film. The problem with Sarbjit isn’t so much the material as the constant emotional hectoring. Dalbir, working desperately to free her brother, spends most of the film shrieking over the bullying background score. As the story winds on, her speeches become more grandiose and simplistic; at one point, she challenges the Taliban, declaring “Hum Hindustaniyon ne kabhi peeth dikhana seekha hi nahi hai”.

There’s little doubt that Rai is moved by the character she’s playing. You can see her get lost in the emotion—voice hoarse, eyes red, body quivering with rage. The result is a lot of visible hard work, but not quite a great performance. Chadha, catatonic for the most part, still manages to inject a few shades of doubt and jealousy into her under-written character. Rai shows us Dalbir’s determination and little else. She attacks every scene with such hoarse fervour that she turns Dalbir into something less than a character and more of an ideal.

Even as Rai becomes more strident as Dalbir ages, Hooda’s performance as the older Sarbjit attains a kind of broken poetry. The wheezing voice he adopts is as shocking as the man’s emaciated, ravaged body; to use a Bob Dylan phrase, the ghost of electricity howls in the bones of his face. It’s difficult not to get swept up at certain points in the film, like when Sarbjit is visited for the first time in jail by his sister, wife and daughters. But this moving, brief reunion is immediately followed by a crude protest scene outside the jail and another croaky lecture by Dalbir. In its efforts to maintain a stranglehold on the audience’s emotions, Sarbjit forgets to leave well enough alone.

Travelling to Cannes

In 2015, the Cannes Film Festival instituted L’Œil d’or (The Golden Eye), an award for the best documentary in any section. This year, Shirley Abraham and Amit Madheshiya’s The Cinema Travelers will compete for this award, as well as for the Caméra d’Or (Best First Feature). When I met the duo at a Yari Road coffee shop in Mumbai, a day before they left for France, they appeared pleasantly freaked out by the heady company they found themselves in. “We’re in competition,” Madheshiya said disbelievingly, “with the great Laura Poitras.”

Abraham and Madheshiya’s first collaboration was when they were in Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia: a short documentary on the Yamuna, for which they journeyed from the river’s source to its end. The Cinema Travelers, their first full-length documentary, tracks a different sort of journey, that of the travelling cinemas of Maharashtra. For decades, these tent cinemas have brought the experience of film-watching to areas where no theatres exist. Often touring in conjunction with religious fairs, they play films ranging from contemporary Bollywood to soft porn, Mithun Chakraborty actioners to Avatar, for Rs 10-30 a ticket.

The project was conceived in 2008. For a couple of years, single-screen theatres had been shutting down across metros, and this led Madheshiya and Abraham to wonder how this experience was reflected in villages. They began visiting tent cinemas in Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal and Maharashtra. “It was a sight you’ve never seen before,” Abraham said of the first screenings they witnessed in Maharashtra. “So many travelling cinemas, so many tents hitched to the back of trucks, with screens erected inside and people watching. We were so curious: How does this still exist?”

Though it was their intention from the start to make a documentary, Madheshiya and Abraham wouldn’t start the actual business of filming for another three years. Instead, they dove into research, visiting archives and compiling oral histories. Information wasn’t easy to come by; it’s as if travelling cinemas barely existed as far as the larger narrative of Indian film was concerned. Eventually, they traced the first mentions of tent cinemas back to the mid-1940s, though they are fairly certain that the tradition dates back to the preceding decade. It began when people from villages came to Bombay, as it was then called, saw the cinema, and were so enamoured of it that they took back the technology. An early source of equipment, according to a recurring but unverifiable legend, was a Parsi businessman who sold projectors outside the Roxy theatre in Bombay.

By 2011, things were looking up. That year, Madheshiya won the prestigious World Press Photo award for his still photographs of night-time viewers at a tent cinema. Their research was nearing completion, with the help of funds from the India Foundation for the Arts and a fellowship from the Heidelberg University in Germany. They had also arrived at a theme that lent some artistic urgency to their project: the adverse impact of digital technology on travelling cinemas, in terms of changes in equipment and the erosion of the community experience of watching films. “We had travelled enough with our people to know that their association with a certain form of cinema—with film, with film projectors—is alive and deep and profound,” Abraham said. “We knew that this could be a lens to look at their lives, using that moment of change to explore something.”

From 2011-15, they shot the film, Madheshiya handling the cinematography and Abraham the sound recording. As with the photographs he had taken earlier, he decided to use only natural light while shooting. “I think the aesthetic really emerged from that limitation,” he said. Abraham added: “Our film isn’t ‘constructed’ the way films like, say, The Look Of Silence are; it’s more about instinctively following people. So in terms of not having a light, it’s about keeping close to what you see.” Not that they’re averse to constructed documentaries. Errol Morris, who used radical crime scene recreations in The Thin Blue Line, is a favourite. So is maverick German film-maker Werner Herzog.

Though they hadn’t edited a film before, Abraham and Madheshiya took the advice of Jonathan Oppenheim (editor, Paris Is Burning) and decided to do it themselves—it was edited, with “plenty of false starts”, from 2014-16. They qualified for and participated in Sundance Labs—residential workshops run by the US-based Sundance Institute in which directors can work out kinks in their work-in-progress films in collaboration with experts in a specific field. For the Sound Design Lab held at the Skywalker Ranch in California, they were paired with Pete Horner, a former collaborator of Francis Ford Coppola and Walter Murch (another of Madheshiya’s heroes) and boasting of an impressive filmography himself, from Upstream Color to Best Of Enemies and Jurassic World. After the workshop, Abraham and Madheshiya asked Horner if he would like to do the sound design for the entire film. He agreed.

After about two years of editing, the film was finally complete. Now, its makers are headed to France, the land of the Lumière brothers, the first directors ever. This dovetails neatly with something Madheshiya said after winning the World Press Photo award in 2011 for his images of patrons of the travelling cinemas. “What is most romantic about these cinemas is that they still preserve the primitive experience of watching cinema,” he said. “When cinema was first introduced to the world in 1895—and 1896 in Bombay—this is how the first contact must have been. This bond is something that still exists in these cinemas.”

Azhar: Review

Mohammad Azharuddin may or may not have sold out his team and country, but at least he was never boring. One cannot say the same for Azhar, Tony D’Souza’s inert biopic on the former Indian captain. The film focuses on everything that made Azhar controversial—the match-fixing allegations that got him banned from the sport, his leaving his first wife for actress Sangeeta Bijlani—and pays little attention to what made him memorable : the elegance of his batting, his cat-like fielding, the lazy nonchalance, the popped collar.

Considering Azharuddin reportedly allowed the film to be made only after he’d approved the script, it shouldn’t surprise anyone to learn that Azhar is completely convinced of its subject’s innocence. Rajat Arora’s screenplay jumps back and forth in time, showing Azhar (Emraan Hashmi) at various stages of his career, from his troika of centuries on debut to his first meeting with bookie MK Sharma (D’Souza is so enamored of this scene that he uses it twice). We also check in at regular intervals on the court case that eventually saw him cleared of fixing charges in 2012. The proceedings are comical, not because the defense attorney (Kunal Roy Kapur) is buffoonish, but because the arguments offered by the prosecuting lawyer (Lara Dutta) are so ridiculous they wouldn’t stand up in a food court, let alone a court of law.

Almost in spite of itself, the film does manage a moment or two of insight. Anyone who remembers Azhar’s cliché-ridden post-match interviews with fondness should at least crack a smile during the courtship scene between him and his first wife, Naureen (Prachi Desai), in which he’s shown as incapable of carrying on a conversation without slipping into cricket-ese. There’s also the scene in which the president of the cricket board offers the soft-spoken cricketer the Indian team captaincy and simultaneously hazes him, making him shout over a recording of a noisy crowd just to prove he can raise his voice when needed.

Scenes like these work because they riff on the Azhar we once knew. But the film isn’t interested in bringing him down to our level—it wants to raise him back to where he used to be. Even if Azhar wasn’t so sketchily written and the cricket scenes weren’t so tacky, this would be a tall order. The makers might have been better off trying to explain how he pulled off those impossible leg glances rather than how he took (but didn’t actually take) money to throw matches.

This review appeared in Mint.

Pelé: Birth of a Legend: Review

Let’s start with the obvious problem. A Pelé biopic after all these years—and it’s in English? The least that the film’s directors, Jeff and Michael Zimbalist, could have done was attempt a Slumdog Millionaire: 15 minutes in the characters’ mother tongue and English thereafter. But all anyone speaks—from little kids in the favelas to Swedish journalists—in Pelé: Birth of a Legend is English. Which is no surprise, given that the film is made with Hollywood money, for an audience that calls the sport soccer, not football.

The first scene shows the 10-year-old Pelé and his friends kicking a ball through the favela without allowing it to touch the ground, a style of practice that the Brazilian national team has made famous. It’s an energetic opening, played a little too broadly by the kids, but fun nevertheless. Things start getting impossibly broad, though, when Pelé is mocked by a rich boy whose home his mother works at, and later, destroys him and his teammates in a local game. Years later, the rich kid, José “Mazolla” Altafini, and Pelé both find themselves on the national team.

Pelé did come from grinding poverty so maybe, just maybe, his mother might have worked at Mazolla’s house. But there are smarter ways to tell a story without resorting to such simplistic antagonisms. It isn’t just what the film suggests but how it says it. To convince us that he changed the outlook of the Brazilian team (thus overhauling their entire game plan) just before the 1958 World Cup final, the film shows Pelé’s teammates, on his urging, recreating the opening sequence, this time kicking a ball through a Swedish hotel without letting it touch the ground. It’s ridiculous, and when the real Pelé turns up in the middle of it all, the genuflection is dispiriting.

The immense responsibility of portraying Pelé falls on Leonardo Lima Carvalho and Kevin de Paula, who play him at age 10, and from 13 through 17, respectively. Both actors have visible skills with the ball, even if they’re aided by an inordinate amount of slo-mo and visual trickery. Vincent D’Onofrio has walked a thin line between dramatic acting scenery-chewing and outrageous hamming in recent times; his turn as the Brazilian national coach is notable for the accent he sports, which is less intelligible than the speech of any of the Brazilian actors in the movie. A.R. Rahman’s score is flashy and fairly unremarkable; the same can be said for Matthew Libatique’s cinematography. All in all, the sort of hagiographic biopic one expects when the person being profiled is the executive producer.

This review appeared in Mint.

Captain America: Civil War: Review

In the past six weeks, we’ve seen two releases in which it’s proposed that superheroes be brought under government control, which in turn sparks off conflict between two heavyweights. The first was Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice, which even the less rabid fanboys admitted was terrible. The other is Captain America: Civil War, which is very impressive—for a comic book movie. Qualities that one would take for granted in any other genre—economy of expression, plot dynamics, occasional moments of insight or beauty—are overvalued when it comes to superhero films. Already, one can hear the hosannas ring out, calling Civil War a watershed moment for the genre.

To an extent, they might be right. The third film in the Captain America series is well-paced, reasonably well-written, patient enough to set up a story strand instead of forcing it, and—despite all the colliding storylines—admirably coherent. To manage all these things in a multi-superhero movie is some sort of achievement (the overloaded Avengers: Age Of Ultron and the grimy Batman v Superman showed different ways to mess that up). Civil War builds on the atmosphere of paranoia and mistrust of authority developed in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but is self-aware enough to bring in sparkier players whom Cap, the eternal straight man, can play off of.

After a brief flashback involving a Hydra-controlled Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) who is up to no good, the film gets under way with a ripping sequence that—possibly because it involves a stake-out in a crowded marketplace in Lagos—has the feel of a Daniel Craig Bond film. Captain America (Chris Evans), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Falcon (Anthony Mackie) and Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) prevent the theft of a biological weapon, but also inadvertently cause loss of life and property. This leads to government authorities introducing an Act which will bring superheroes under UN supervision and prevent them from acting unilaterally. Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) is for it, as is War Machine (Don Cheadle). But Cap’s faith in the government has been shaken by the events of The Winter Soldier, and he refuses to sign. Soon, he’s on the run and Iron Man is the one tasked with bringing him back.

Once battle lines have been drawn, the film begins its most pleasurable stretch as the two Avengers start recruiting superheroes from various Marvel franchises for their respective teams. Black Widow and War Machine join Iron Man, who makes a trip to the home of a teenager named Peter Parker (Tom Holland). Cap, meanwhile, adds Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), Falcon and Maximoff to his side. There’s a new hero as well: Black Panther, played with welcome gravitas by the talented Chadwick Boseman. And there’s Barnes, the Winter Soldier, who is Team Cap when he isn’t snapping into Hydra assassin mode.

The twin recruitment drives culminate in a delightful extended battle that outclasses the crowded sequences in Age Of Ultron in both imagination and humour. For 20 minutes, directors Joe and Anthony Russo throw a series of wouldn’t-it-be-cool superhero stand-off scenarios at us: Iron Man fending off Ant-Man, Spider-Man shooting webs at Captain America (regretfully—he’s a fan), Black Panther trying to rip Barnes from limb to limb. Even though very little is at stake here—there’s no way Marvel’s allowing one of its heroes to kill another—the sequence left me with a sensation I wouldn’t normally associate with tent-pole releases or superhero films: one of buoyancy.

After the dust settles, the film returns to a more sober consideration of the ideological divide and where that leaves the Avengers. There’s a running subplot about a terrorist (played by Daniel Brühl) messing with Barnes’ head, but that’s just a way to bring Cap and Iron Man together and let them have a knock-down-drag-out fight. It’s interesting to see a summer blockbuster deliver its big set piece in the middle and end on an ambiguous, unsettled note. With a succession of movies starring jester superheroes—the Guardians crew, Ant-Man, Deadpool—in the last two years, Marvel seemed in danger of becoming a little too in on the joke. With Civil War, it seems to have found its balance.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Sairat: Keeping it real

(Wrote this for the Lounge website a couple of days after Sairat released. A close reading of the film, so there are spoilers.)

In an interview with The Hindu, Nagraj Manjule spoke about the linguistic subtleties of the word “sairat”—Marathi for all-consuming passion or obsession, and the name of his new film. “The word can have both positive and negative connotations,” he said. “For you, it might imply freedom of thought, liberation and progressive ideas but to another person, it could mean sheer wildness and recklessness.”

Though Manjule’s films are built on progressive ideas, recklessness tends to have the upper hand in them. His first feature, 2013’s Fandry, was about a lower-caste boy infatuated with an upper-caste girl who goes to his school. In one wrenching scene, the boy and his family chase after a pig as the villagers gather around and make fun of them. The film ends with a stone hurled at the camera, the consequences of which are unspecified, but almost certainly dire. The warning was there for all to see: Manjule was unafraid of following his stories through to their logical, unhappy conclusion and hurling these conclusions at us, the audience.

Though Sairat is also about a lower-caste college-goer, Parshya, in love with an upper-caste girl, Archie, its initial stretch bears little resemblance to Manjule’s first film. Our first glimpse of Parshya—mid-leap, staring sideways at the camera, as if itching to break the fourth wall—encourages the idea that this is a commercial film, with all its attendant suspensions of disbelief, and not a bare bones indie like Fandry. Had Sairat ended with Parshya and Archie on the run, having escaped her politician father’s goons, it would have been a fairly standard, if uncommonly charming, film about how young love overcomes all obstacles. The first hour and a half is close to wish fulfilment—gutsy heroine, sweet-natured hero, selfless friends and enemies who can be outrun and outwitted.

But when Sairat returns after the break, it’s a very different film. If the earlier half was about the impracticality of passion, the latter half reminds us that for love to survive in the real world, practical considerations are of the utmost importance. In Mani Ratnam’s Alaipayuthey, remade in Hindi as Saathiya, viewers were shown what happens when the excitement of new love is replaced by the real business of making a life together. Manjule’s film is even blunter, turning a commercial musical comedy, swooping camera movements and all, into a kitchen sink drama. Ajay-Atul’s buoyant music is replaced by silences that weigh heavy on the characters, and on us. Archie, so decisive in the village, becomes withdrawn, and the hitherto unsure Parshya takes charge. The film begins to ask questions we don’t want answers to, like whether Archie, who’s used to a comfortable life, will stick it out with her husband in a slum. There’s a huge fight, and though it’s eventually resolved, Parshya comes close to hanging himself. As the contrite lovers embraced, I noticed the very deliberate framing of the scene, with the noose hanging down beside them. It felt like a warning.

Looming in the back of my mind as I watched Sairat were memories of Ek Duuje Ke Liye and LSD: Love, Sex Aur Dhoka, part of a small group of films that remind us how, nine times out of 10, tradition will snuff out free love in this country. I was also reminded of Michael Haneke’s unremittingly bleak Funny Games. Though Sairat may seem miles away from the cold brutality of that film, both derive their sting from the way they play with audience expectations—raising hopes, dashing them, then raising them again. After Parshya’s near-suicide, Manjule compresses the couple’s next few years into a montage. He finds work in an auto service shop, the factory she works at promotes her, they have a child together, and life seems impossibly happy. Impossibly.

Parshya and Archie’s toddler walks in on his unsteady bare feet and finds his parents lying on the floor, exhausted but happy. They hug him and say, you’re going to meet your grandfather. A couple of weeks later, they’re in Archie’s home in the village. Father and daughter have made up, and son-in-law has been accepted as part of the family. There’s a quick song, then end credits. And the audience gets up, says, phew, that was a close one, he almost killed himself.

This is the ending we’d want. But we know it isn’t the right one. There’s something wishful about a headline that reads “Eloping lovers welcomed back by parents”. “Inter-caste couple hacked to death by family” is far more realistic. What is truly shocking isn’t the way Sairat ends, but the idea that a film like Sairat could end this way. All those songs and dances, the bravado and hope, is revealed to be an elaborate smokescreen, a way to reel audiences in, to lull them into complacency. Then, just like that, Manjule snaps his fingers and says, wake up.

Filmish: A Graphic Journey Through Film

One of the notable innovations in recent film criticism has been the advent of the video essay. You’ll see hundreds of examples online: short to mid-length films that seek to solve cinematic problems or throw light on a particular area of the film. The simple fact that actual film clips can be used, freeze-framed, magnified and layered with narration makes this a remarkably viewer-friendly form of criticism, as evinced by the popularity of essayists such as Kevin B. Lee or Tony Zhou.

Edward Ross’ Filmish: A Graphic Journey Through Film brings the spirit of the video essay to print. There are seven chapters—“The Eye”; “The Body”; “Sets And Architecture”; “Time”; “Voice And Language”; “Power And Ideology”; “Technology And Technophobia”—but each is further divided into explorations of specific themes, usually a page or two long. The chapter on time, for instance, begins with a discussion on editing, then goes on to consider films that appear to unfold in real time (High Noon, Cleo From 5 To 7) and others whose narratives play elaborate time games (Happy End, Memento). The next two pages are dedicated to the time-travel genre, before it closes with films in which time and memory and personal history are fused and often confused (Hiroshima Mon Amour, Waltz With Bashir, The Mirror).

While it wouldn’t be impossible for a skilled critic to cover similar ground in a written essay, the graphic medium is ideally suited for a series of quick, concise arguments (as is the video essay). That Ross can, in the space of a few panels, jump genres and eras and bring together films as disparate as The Terminator and La Jetée as part of the same overarching argument is what makes Filmish so provocative and enjoyable. It would make a great companion piece to Mark Cousins’ 15-part The Story Of Film: An Odyssey, or Slavoj Žižek’s The Pervert’s Guide To Cinema and The Pervert’s Guide To Ideology, documentaries which delight in confounding conventional thinking about cinema.

Some readers might wonder why a fair number of Ross’ illustrations bear only a passing resemblance to their filmic counterparts; the Will Smith drawn on page 41 looks more like Eminem. I would argue that an exact likeness is beside the point and that Ross’ illustrations are occasionally stunning but largely functional—at the service of his arguments, which is where the primary interest of the book lies. What did bother me somewhat, though, is Ross’ tendency to pepper each page with quotes by critics, academics and cultural theorists. It could be that Ross, not being a film critic himself, feels like he must use other critics’ arguments to bolster his own very entertaining theories, which is understandable, but the exact citations could nevertheless have been relegated to the endnotes.

Ross works as an illustrator, writer and comic artist in Edinburgh. Filmish is his first graphic novel, and though it’s autobiographical only in a couple of places, he does utilize a cartoon version of himself—with square spectacles and hints of scruff on his face—as narrator, much like Scott McCloud did in Understanding Comics. That 1993 graphic novel is now seen as a key work of comic book criticism. Whether Filmish attains comparable cult status remains to be seen, but it will certainly light, or further stoke, the fires of cinephilia in the minds of those who read it.

This review appeared in Mint Lounge.

Baaghi: Review

When Baaghi’s trailers arrived in March, everyone was surprised to note similarities between it and the 2012 Indonesian film The Raid: Redemption. After all, Indian action cinema is known for its striking originality and, in those rare cases where inspiration is found elsewhere, its scrupulousness in acknowledging sources. So what if both films involve a high-rise with trained killers on every floor and a martial arts expert fighting his way up? The Raid was a distillation of brutal movement and impact. Baaghi has songs and dances and a love story. Entirely different.

In the end, the surprise isn’t how blatantly The Raid is copied, but the surprising effectiveness of those scenes. They only make up around 20 minutes of a 150-minute film and while they cannot match the sustained ferocity of Gareth Evans’ sequences, they have a respect for spatial geography and a tendency to show blows and kicks delivered (rather than cutting at the moment of impact), which is rare for Indian action cinema. Tiger Shroff is competent at best as a lover, a comic and a dramatic actor, but he’s quite a sight when he’s fighting onscreen. The scenes with him kicking and punching his way to the top of the building are gritty fun despite being completely derivative. But to see these, you have to sit through the rest of the film, which is hardly fair.

In short, then: rebellious Ronny (Shroff) and film actor Siya (Shraddha Kapoor) meet on a train bound for Kerala. They banter (not very intelligently) and begin to fall in love. He joins a kalaripayattu academy run by Guruswamy (Shaurya Bhardwaj), whose son, Raghav (Sudheer Babu), also falls for Siya. No sooner has Ronny become a martial arts pro than Raghav kidnaps Siya and whisks her off to Bangkok (director Sabbir Khan has said that his inspiration was the Ramayana, not The Raid). Two hours later, having endured Kapoor’s aren’t-I-just-precious routine, Babu’s very good impression of a block of wood with a smirk painted on it and a mute child who isn’t mute enough, we reach the high-rise.

It’s a quick jog to the end from there on, and the best stretch of the film. It’s nice to see an Indian film sling a few convincing action scenes together, yet it’s also depressing to think that we’d probably never have been able to work out such sequences if there hadn’t been a ready template. But then, that’s what we do best: imitate a superior product and package it as rebellion.

This review appeared in Mint.

The Huntsman: Winter’s War: Review

Mirror, mirror on the wall, is this the most unlikely sequel of all? When Snow White And The Huntsman ended, according to the fairy tale, with the titular princess safe and the Evil Queen Ravenna dead, it didn’t seem that another film was on anyone’s mind. But $396 million at the box office is enough to send even the most stoic studio executives back to the drawing board. Which is probably why we now have Cedric Nicolas-Troyan’s The Huntsman: Winter’s War, with Ravenna (Charlize Theron) alive and up to no good in the first scene.

The Huntsman begins its story several years before the events of the first film. We learn that Ravenna had a younger sister, Freya (Emily Blunt), who was in love with a duke and had a child who was burnt alive by him (if you aren’t even a little suspicious about his motives, your credulity levels are exactly where the studios want them to be). Distraught, Freya turns the duke into a pillar of ice, then heads off north, pillaging, establishing a vast, frozen kingdom and training young children she’s orphaned to be emotionally comatose warriors. Her two best fighters are Eric (Chris Hemsworth, reprising his role from the earlier film) and Sara (Jessica Chastain), who fall in love. After Freya literally drives a wall between them, Eric escapes, believing Sara to be dead.

She isn’t. Why would anyone believe that an actor with close-to-top billing in a big-budget film would be dead 30 minutes in? The rest of The Huntsman is a series of waits: for Sara to make a reappearance, for her to believe that Eric didn’t leave her there to die, for the two of them to rekindle their romance and, with the help of a quartet of dwarves, take on Freya, who only has a huge army and magical powers. There’s a nice cameo that lifts the film in the last 20 minutes, but the sheer predictability that informs every scene—every line, really—is mind-numbing.

Surprisingly, the one redeeming feature in the film is the CGI work, which is imaginative and beautiful in a way that CGI rarely is. I didn’t feel anything for the wacko pairing of Hemsworth and Chastain, or for Rob Brydon and Nick Frost’s mugging as the dwarves, or Blunt’s icy depression, but found myself quite enamoured of the miniature disappearing elves, the sparkling columns of ice, the polar bear-tiger that Freya rides and the mirror taking a molten, familiar shape. But a few inspired moments can’t keep The Huntsman from seeming like the unwanted sequel to a film no one thought of very highly in the first place.

This review appeared in Mint.