Sunday, August 21, 2016

Rustom: Review

Our first glimpse of Rustom Pavri (Akshay Kumar) is when he climbs on to the deck of the warship he’s commanding. Behind him, undulating against a saffron sky, is a large tricolour. This early pairing of character and nation in Tinu Suresh Desai’s Rustom is most significant. After all, this is a film that asks viewers to not only condone but actively support murder if it’s ostensibly committed in service of the country.

On 27 April 1959, Commander K.M. Nanavati shot Prem Ahuja, with whom his wife, Sylvia, had been having an affair, and surrendered to the police. In the subsequent trial—reported with muckraking glee by the tabloids—public sympathy was squarely in Nanavati’s favour, and he was acquitted by the jury. There has already been a film made on the scandal: Yeh Rastey Hain Pyar Ke, with Sunil Dutt and Leela Naidu. Despite its closeness to the actual events—or perhaps because of that—the 1963 film ignored the seamier aspects of the scandal, ending up as a morally conservative weepie.

Though it’s similarly prone to moralizing, Rustom does try and acquaint viewers with the ins and outs of the trial. Returning from his mission a few days early, Rustom heads home to surprise his wife, Cynthia (Ileana D’Cruz). She’s out; he finds love letters to her from his friend Vikram (Arjan Bajwa) instead. When she gets back, he confronts her. He then heads to the docks, procures a revolver, drives to Vikram’s home, shoots him thrice in the chest, and surrenders to inspector Vincent Lobo (Pavan Malhotra) at the police station.

As Rustom’s trial approaches, editor Erach Billimori (Kumud Mishra)—the reference is to Blitz’s Russi Karanjia—sees an opportunity to promote his newspaper as well as help a fellow Parsi. He sets about sensationalizing the already scandalous story, painting Cynthia as a wife led astray and Rustom as the upright officer who avenges her honour. He also attempts to put together a legal team, which results in a nice scene where Billimoria petitions a senior Parsi lawyer by telling him that the Sindhis—the community Vikram belonged to—have put forward one of their own as prosecutor. To complicate matters further, Rustom might know official naval secrets, which gives him a bargaining chip but also places Cynthia and him in danger.

All this should have resulted, at the very least, in a reasonably diverting film. Yet, though Rustom uses all the sensational material the Nanavati case has to offer, the treatment is laughably silly, like an especially ridiculous episode of CID crossed with an especially over-the-top Balaji Telefilms production. The period recreation screams “period recreation”, as if 2016 is just beyond the frame. The background score keeps prodding us as if to say, “Did you see that? That was an important scene.” As if anything pitched at this level of audience-pandering could escape us. This is a film so desperate to explain that it follows an argument by Pavri in court (he argues his own case) with murmurs of “But he’s right” from onlookers.

The performances add to the campiness of the production. Esha Gupta, as Vikram’s glamorous sister, appears to be parodying a vamp rather than playing one. Bajwa makes Rehman’s sleazebag from Yeh Rastey look positively suave. Even reliable character actors such as Sachin Khedekar, Kumud Mishra and Brijendra Kala are defeated by the clichés of their characters. The leads are more reined-in: Kumar trying (and failing) to give the impression of deep thought, D’Cruz alternating between getting ready to cry and actually crying (until someone writes a complex, motivated Sylvia, we may never have a worthwhile movie on Nanavati).

The film’s late pivot from questions of honour and morality to those of national pride may seem perplexing, but actually makes some sense if you see it in the context of Kumar’s career of late. A fair amount of his recent film work—Holiday, Baby, Airlift—has been concerned with patriotism in one way or another. Rustom could be seen as another step in Kumar’s ongoing reinvention as the honourable, supremely capable all-Indian hero. It’s worth noting that the film, which mirrors the Nanavati case closely, fails to mention that the euphoria of acquittal was short-lived, that the decorated war hero actually went to prison after the Bombay high court overturned the lower court’s verdict and was only pardoned three years later. It would be the last trial decided by a jury in India.

This review appeared in Mint.

Mohenjo Daro: Review

It stands to reason that someone who makes an utterly unremarkable film about the Mughals wouldn’t do much better with an earlier civilization. Ashutosh Gowariker’s post-Swades career has been so uninspired that it’s surprising he was considered a good enough bet to helm a film like Mohenjo Daro. And the film is indeed deeply flawed, though perhaps not quite the complete disaster many have been predicting.

It helps that the most ridiculed part of the trailer is done and dusted with in the opening minutes. A man grappling with a giant crocodile was ridiculous when Johnny Weissmuller did it in 1934’s Tarzan And His Mate, and it’s still ridiculous now. But it’s over in 10 minutes, and what follows is the film’s neatest sleight-of-hand. Until then, Sarman (Hrithik Roshan) and his crew had been speaking an unknown tongue. When they return to the village, the camera zooms in on one speaker’s face. When it zooms out, the language has changed to Hindi.

From the start, and in the least subtle way imaginable, the film impresses upon us that Sarman isn’t your average reptile-wrestling Indus Valley farmer. It’s obvious what his dreams of Mohenjo Daro and CGI unicorns will lead to, but this is a Gowariker film, so it’s an hour and a half before the narrative catches up with the audience. That time is spent in getting Sarman from his village to the big city. His guardians give him a seal with a unicorn on it for protection: another heavy-handed piece of foreshadowing, but strangely resonant because of its use of an actual Indus Valley seal. Once in Mohenjo Daro, Sarman is initially awestruck but quickly stung by the cruelty of the ruling pradhan, Maham (Kabir Bedi), and his son, Moonja (Arunoday Singh).

It should come as no surprise when it’s revealed that Sarman was once a resident of Mohenjo Daro himself. I won’t reveal the exact circumstances because of which he found himself growing up in a village; suffice to say that it’s time for Indian historical films to start looking for fresh narratives to accompany their improved visual sweep. Like Baahubali, Mohenjo Daro falls back on time-worn epic-movie devices: the sadistic heir to the throne, the gladiator bout which turns the protagonist into a public hero, the United Colours of Indus song sequence (okay, maybe that one’s new). The city has been realized with surprising restraint and some of the details are intriguing, but the swords-and-sandals template means that even though we’ve never seen the Indus Valley on film before, it all feels familiar.

Though this is the shortest film he’s made in years, Gowariker isn’t—and probably will never be—an efficient film-maker. What other directors convey in two lines, he does in seven. Long after scenes have revealed their purpose, he allows them to continue, lest the audience miss out on some imaginary subtlety. His staging is astonishingly archaic at times—note how the labourers give voice to their grievances one by one, in orderly fashion, instead of shouting all at once like an angry mob would. There’s also the repeated suspension of disbelief (was a little eye make-up really an effective disguise in 2500 BC?) that lazy writing necessitates.

Despite all this, Mohenjo Daro manages to just about stay afloat. This is in large part due to Roshan, who is the right kind of actor for a film like this. In fact, this may be the only sort of role he’s naturally suited for. All the effort and concentration and jaw-clenching that mark a Roshan performance have a viable outlet here; the setting is expansive and ancient enough to accommodate his unironically heroic persona. Bedi too is excellently cast—and costumed—as the scheming pradhan. Pooja Hegde is just about adequate as Chaani, the high priest’s daughter whom Sarman keeps saving; in all fairness, the aviary she wears on her head would have defeated better actors.

It’s a relief when Sarman’s done with his too-easy-by-half socialist revolution and the film returns to the idea of Mohenjo Daro. The ending is a surprise, not because it’s impossible to anticipate but because it’s a rare moment when historical conjecture is used in support of a true imaginative leap by Gowariker. It’s the best thing in the film, and a vision of what this film could have been.

This review appeared in Mint.

No direction home: Chauthi Koot

(Spoilers abound)

“As the sun, far in the West, slid behind the tall trees, my heart too started sinking heavily.

I would look at the watch, wonder about the speed of the bus, look at the bus driver and at the spreading darkness outside. While I was trying to gauge the feeling of fear and worry writ on Jugal’s face, seated toward my right, he flashed a smile in return.”

This is how Waryam Singh Sandhu begins his short story "Chauthi Koot" (The Fourth Direction). It’s also how Gurvinder Singh begins his film of the same name, based on this and another Sandhu story. In the original text, it takes several pages before we learn why the narrator and his friend are so worried. Singh stretches those pages into a supremely tense opening passage. Two men, both Hindu, are desperate to get to Amritsar. They overcome the protests of a guard and barge their way onto a train.

Once inside, they freeze. Two of the men sitting in the compartment are sardars. Though the word “militant” hasn’t yet been mentioned in the film (which is set in Punjab in the 1980s), we can tell that the newcomers are wondering if they’re staring at one, or two. As the train rattles along and the men eye each other warily, the stage is set for something to happen—an explanation, perhaps, or a stand-off. Then, with a simple “A few months earlier…”, we find ourselves watching a completely different story.

It’s a bold move, yanking the viewer out of a narrative that finally seems to be getting somewhere and dropping them cold into another. Even more audaciously, the film’s almost over by the time we return to the first story. Yet, one can see why Singh has structured it so. If the opening passage is a question, the extended middle segment is an answer—of sorts.

Joginder lives with his family and his dog, Tommy, in a village that’s under the twin grip of militancy and the military. One night, Tommy’s barking brings separatist fighters to their door. They threaten Joginder and tell him to kill the dog (the barking might alert security forces). The next day, army men, working on a tip, ransack the house. Yet, Tommy won’t stop barking at night. It’s clear what Joginder must do, but when he does deal with the problem, taking a shovel to the dog, it’s still a shock.

This moment will most likely end up determining what you feel about Chauthi Koot. For me, it was as if Singh located all the hopelessness and desperation of the times in a single act of inhumanity. There are powerful reasons for Joginder to do what he did: the twin visits have shown the very real threat to his and his family’s lives, and the loyal but irrepressible Tommy is clearly beyond silencing. It’s undeniable that Joginder loves the animal, calling him sher and puttar. Does his affection for his pet make his actions all the more indefensible? Perhaps, but the alternative—letting Tommy bark night after night, inciting the already riled-up militants—is also untenable.

Joginder’s actions reminded me of a decision taken at a similarly tense moment in a film that couldn’t be more unlike Chauthi Koot. Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989), an exploration of race relations in New York’s Bedford–Stuyvesant neighbourhood, reaches a fever pitch during an argument at Sal’s Pizzeria. Matters escalate, and the police end up choking a young black man to death. As the stunned crowd realises what’s happened, the film’s mild-mannered protagonist, Mookie— who works for Sal—grabs a garbage can and sends it flying through the shop window. This starts a riot, and the pizzeria is burnt down.

It’s been 27 years, but Lee probably still gets asked if Mookie did the right thing. The answer I’ve always heard him give is that this particular question is usually posed to him by white people. A young, unarmed man is dead. What’s a pizza place—one covered by insurance—compared to that? But for viewers, it isn’t that simple. We feel attached to abrasive but kindly pizzeria owners like Sal, and boisterous dogs like Tommy. We see the brutality and wonder if it might have been avoided, even though it cannot compare with the larger brutality that surrounds these incidents.

Whether Joginder did the right thing is something viewers will have to decide for themselves. As with his first film, Anhey Ghorey Da Daan (2012), Singh gives us fragments and leaves us to figure out the whole picture. As I walked out of my second viewing of the film, it struck me that the two men had walked screen left to right in the beginning, and right to left in the end. Is this a comment on the futility of their journey? Is the mention of Operation Blue Star, the Sri Lankan civil war and racial strife in South Africa in the same radio broadcast significant? It really depends on what you see, and how you see it.

Chauthi Koot is less elliptical than Anhey Ghorey Da Daan, in which details of plot and character were handed out so sparingly that the film was ultimately easier to admire than feel any emotional connection to. In his second film, Singh is content to provide a little more information, though his filmmaking style is still spare, quiet, fixated on minute detail. The sound design (Susmit Bob Nath), music (Marc Marder), art direction (Priyanka Grover) and cinematography (Satya Nagpaul) blend into one another so beautifully that at times it's difficult to separate them. Some moments that are so precise they’re breathtaking: a tiny bird balancing on a stem in the early morning fog; a startled chicken flying into the frame when a gun goes off.

All the elements come to a head in the film’s one set piece. A religious convoy comes by Joginder’s village and asks for directions. In the next scene, we’re travelling with them as men and women on tractors and trucks sing about ancient battles and drinking the blood of enemies. As their voices gain in strength, shots are fired into the air and shouts of "Bole sau nihal" ring out. The procession come to a halt and, in an astonishing overhead tracking shot, we zip across the length of the convoy, stretching for what seems like a kilometre. The scene ends in chaos, with the police arriving and telling everyone to disperse. There are so many elements embedded in this scene—the martial traditions in Sikhism, the pairing of religious fervour and violence—that one could spend hours picking it apart. Yet, like the film, it’s most powerful when experienced as an unsettling, vivid whole.

This piece appeared on the Mint website.

Suicide Squad: Review

Twenty minutes into Suicide Squad, I was laughing. It wasn’t at Jared Leto, who tries so hard to appear unhinged it’s just uncomfortable. It wasn’t at Will Smith either, who can’t seem to get the trickster out of his voice even when he’s playing a hard-as-nails hitman. What was cracking me up instead was the soundtrack. Not since Goodfellas has a Hollywood film had such a high song-per-scene ratio, but at least there was a thematic unity to the tracks in that film. This one just careens all over the place—Creedence Clearwater Revival one minute, Kanye West the next.

After Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice, one might say DC owed the movie-going public one. That apology must still be on the way, for Suicide Squad is, if anything, more ridiculous and illogical and thoughtlessly violent than Zack Snyder’s film. Perhaps the idea was to create DC’s own group of disaffected heroes to rival Marvel’s Guardians Of The Galaxy, only more violent and profane. Then, in February, the Deadpool movie that couldn’t get made for years released, was a monster hit and left DC looking like it had come late to the R-rated party.

With Superman dead at the end of Dawn Of Justice, government operative Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) is on the lookout for other meta-humans to help fight humankind’s battles. Using June Moone (Cara Delevingne), a doctor inhabited by a witch (“The Enchantress”), to scare the authorities, she gets the sanction to put together a team of bad people who “could do some good”: Deadshot (Smith); Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), certifiably insane and in love with Leto’s Joker, who is on the loose; El Diablo (Jay Hernandez), who shoots fire when he’s in the mood; Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), who has some talent that’s never made clear; Slipknot (Adam Beach), who climbs things; and Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), who’s exactly what he sounds like. They’re put under the command of army colonel Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), who is in love with June (when she’s not all witchy). If all this isn’t far-out enough, Waller has put little bombs in the heads of all the squad members, in case they refuse whatever mission she has in mind.

The irony in all this is that the only enemy that these lowlifes battle in the whole movie is one that Waller is at least partly responsible for. Around the same time the Squad is formed, The Enchantress takes over June, who is joined by her brother, Incubus. They set about building some world-destroying weapon, and it’s up to the very-bad-but-really-not-so-bad team to stop them. Suicide Squad is a comic book version of The Dirty Dozen, but there’s a key difference between the two films. The Dozen never stop being dirty—they’re mean and ornery and calculating to the bitter end. The Squad members, on the other hand, soften as the film progresses, culminating in a scene where they seem to grow a collective conscience.

It isn’t just the celebration of casual violence, or the uneasy marriage of a gritty real-world aesthetic with comic book rules (characters walk away from helicopter crashes like they fell off a bicycle). Suicide Squad also brings back the days of Princess Leia in a gold bikini, costuming Delevingne in something resembling a belly dancer’s attire and Robbie in a tight T-shirt and tighter shorts. It’s depressing to see Robbie ogled at and paired with the laboured, indescribably weird Leto, because her comic touch is bright and quick. I would look forward to seeing Harley Quinn again, in more comfortable clothes and without The Joker or the rest of the Squad.

This review appeared in Mint.

Brief encounters: The 40 most memorable Hindi film cameos

There’s something that Marshall McLuhan and Yana Gupta, Habib Tanvir and Marilyn Monroe have in common. They’ve all had memorable cameos in films. Like a riff or a haiku, a great cameo can contain multitudes even when it lasts just a few seconds. It’s also one of the most audience-involving of cinematic devices, for a successful guest spot very often requires viewers to bring their own associations with the cameoing personality into play.

We have selected 40 Hindi film cameos we believe are the most memorable. We did not allow appearances that exceeded a certain time limit (no Rajesh Khanna in Andaz, for example) and imposed a one-entry-per-film/actor clause (bent slightly for Amitabh Bachchan). It’s a tribute to the inclusivity and wonderful weirdness of our cinema that this list numbers, alongside perfectly serious turns by famous actors, cameos by magicians, voices, blackboards and goats.

We would like to thank Karan Bali, Sidharth Bhatia, Varun Grover, Pavan Jha, Madhulika Liddle, Akshay Manwani, Jai Arjun Singh and Beth Watkins for all their help and wonderful suggestions.

Nargis in ‘Jagte Raho’, 1956
“I used to always tell her… I want you to be the mother of my films,” Raj Kapoor said of Nargis late in his life. Though ‘Jagte Raho’ was produced, not directed, by Kapoor, it does have Nargis as a symbolic Yashoda singing to an infant Krishna. She appears in the closing minutes of this 1956 film to sing ‘Jaago Mohan Pyare’ (sans subtext, Krishna’s mother asking him to wake up) and offer Raj Kapoor’s beleaguered homeless man some water. After the high drama of the previous 130-odd minutes, it’s a relatively calm end. Today, it’s a rather poignant scene. Nargis and Kapoor broke off their affair soon after. This brief appearance would be her last in an RK film.

Shah Rukh Khan in ‘In Which Annie Gives It Those Ones’, 1989
It all began here. Three-and-a-half minutes into ‘In Which Annie Gives It Those Ones’, a young man in a white robe and shorts, with centre-parted hair and his arm in a sling, gets about 30 seconds of screen time and a couple of lines. The actor reappears 15 minutes later, this time in blue-and-white polka-dotted pants, and talks about “piddling”. It’s difficult to imagine that this unprepossessing person still has a job as an actor, let alone that he’s Shah Rukh Khan. These two brief scenes in Pradip Krishen’s film, written by Arundhati Roy—which never made it to theatres—were his first big screen appearances.

Nawazuddin Siddiqui in ‘New York’, 2009
You’re begging to be lied to when you ask Bollywood fans when they first noticed Nawazuddin Siddiqui. Most will say something outrageous like ‘Sarfarosh’, in which he’s there as an inmate for some 30 seconds, or ‘Munna Bhai M.B.B.S.’, in which he has one scene with Sunil Dutt and Sanjay Dutt. But if they speak of ‘New York’ and the searing scene in which he gives an account of his character’s torture by the American authorities on tape, you might want to believe them.

WM Khan in ‘Kabuliwala’, 1961
Though Balraj Sahni is the lead in ‘Kabuliwala’, director Hemen Gupta (or perhaps producer Bimal Roy) decided to have Wazir Mohammed Khan lip-sync to ‘Ae Mere Pyare Watan’—probably the greatest Hindi film song about homesickness. Khan doesn’t appear anywhere else in the film, though he has a “Pashto supervision” credit. This was the second classic track featuring the actor. The other, ‘De De Khuda Ke Naam Pe Pyaare’—which he also sang—was the first musical number in the first-ever Hindi talkie, ‘Alam Ara’ (1931).

Bhupinder Singh in ‘Aakhri Khat’, 1966
The story goes that playback singer Bhupinder Singh was originally cast as the lead in ‘Aakhri Khat’. He turned down the part, and after Sanjay Khan passed as well, Rajesh Khanna got to make his debut. But director Chetan Anand evidently thought Singh had screen presence; he had included him as one of the soldiers singing ‘Hoke Majbur Mujhe Usne Bhulaya Hoga’ in ‘Haqeeqat’. In ‘Aakhri Khat’, he cast him as the nightclub performer who sings ‘Rut Jawaan Jawaan Raat Meherbaan’. It’s a striking scene, with Singh strumming a guitar and winding his way around close-dancing couples in a shadowy room. Also cameoing is trumpeter Chic Chocolate, shot in profile and looking rather like Louis Armstrong.

V Ratra and VK Murthy in ‘Kaagaz Ke Phool’, 1959
During a film shoot in Guru Dutt’s ‘Kaagaz Ke Phool’, Waheeda Rehman’s character wanders on to the set and ruins the shot. Someone calls cut, and we see, perched on a descending crane, the film’s director, played by Dutt, flanked by a cameraman and his assistant. The bespectacled assistant is V.K. Murthy, Dutt’s favoured cinematographer, and the man behind the camera is V. Ratra, who shot Dutt’s first film, ‘Baazi’. Why was Ratra cast as the “senior” in the scene, when it was Murthy who shot ‘Kaagaz Ke Phool’? Perhaps it’s a reference to the fact that Murthy did indeed start out as Ratra’s assistant. Or maybe Dutt thought Ratra would be able to handle two lines and an eye-roll better than his director of photography . At any rate, Murthy remains silent in the scene, though his images in the film swoon and sing.

Amitabh Bachchan in ‘Hero Hiralal’, 1988
Towards the end of Ketan Mehta’s ‘Hero Hiralal’, film star Roopa (Sanjna Kapoor) is desperately trying to hail a car so that she can save Hiralal (Naseeruddin Shah) from being killed. A crowd of autograph hunters surrounds her, only to clear seconds later to make way for Amitabh Bachchan. When Roopa tells Bachchan it’s a matter of life and death, he remarks, “So you want a happy ending too.” Then, turning to the camera and pointing at us, the viewers, he says, “And you as well?” Apart from being a nifty piece of fourth-wall breaking, Bachchan’s remarks could also be seen as bringing the assurances of commercial cinema (boy gets girl, villain is routed, everyone lives happily) to the more uncertain middle cinema of Shah and Mehta.

The goat in ‘Gangs Of Wasseypur–Part 1’, 2012
How do you make an already hilarious scene even funnier? Add a goat. As Huma Qureshi is schooling Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s young hood in hand-holding etiquette, a brown goat enters the scene behind the two actors, positions itself perfectly between them and gets up on its hind legs to sample some leaves. It seems unlikely that the goat was deliberately inserted into the scene (if indeed it was, it’s a casually brilliant performance by the animal). Whether planned or not, it’s one of the best disruptive four-legged cameos in Hindi cinema, on a par with the buffalo in Mrinal Sen’s ‘Bhuvan Shome’ (1969).

Gulzar in ‘Griha Pravesh’ and ‘Raincoat’, 1979 & 2004
Gulzar did his most sustained piece of screen-acting in ‘Jallianwala Bagh’—in fact, it’s long enough to qualify as a supporting part. In its place, we’ll include the poet’s cameos—one silent, the other just his voice—in ‘Griha Pravesh’ and ‘Raincoat’. In the former, he appears as an appreciative listener during the ‘Logon Ke Ghar Main Rehta Hoon’ sequence —a mini-masterpiece of side glances. And in Rituparno Ghosh’s film, his voice recites the poem that forms part of the haunting ‘Piya Tora Kaisa Abhimaan’.

Mukesh in ‘Aah’, 1953
For reasons too convoluted and lachrymose to relate here, Raj (Raj Kapoor) must get to Neelu’s (Nargis) wedding before he dies of tuberculosis and she marries his friend. He elects to hire a ‘tonga’, even though the film, ‘Aah’, takes place in the age of motor cars and time is of the essence. The ‘tonga’ driver is playback artiste Mukesh, who transports Raj while singing ‘Chhoti Si Yeh Zindagani’. It’s quite something to see Mukesh’s voice attached to his own face instead of Kapoor’s, and to see how relaxed and upbeat he looks even though he’s ferrying a dying man.

Deepak Dobriyal in ‘Gulaal’, 2009
As the minor henchman Rajender Bhati, Deepak Dobriyal in ‘Gulaal’ gets little over 5 minutes of screen time. He spends a minute of this executing one of the coolest pieces of acting in recent Hindi cinema. At a ‘panwadi’ with two people he’s supposed to inform on, Dobriyal fends off their questions wordlessly, employing a series of raised eyebrows, blinks, head tilts and barely perceptible nods. It’s as brilliant an exploration of Indian body language as can be squeezed into 60 seconds.

Dharmendra in ‘Khamoshi’, 1970
A cameo that’s barely there. As the patient nurse Radha (Waheeda Rehman) fell in love with, Dharmendra is an almost spectral presence in Asit Sen’s ‘Khamoshi’, haunting Radha’s present and dictating her actions. In the ‘Tum Pukar Lo’ sequence, he has his back turned to the camera. Only for 3 seconds do we see his side profile. Later, in a love scene, we hear his voice, but his face is obscured by Radha’s hair. Finally, in ‘Woh Shaam Kuch Ajeeb Thi’, we see his face, in close-up, for what might be a whole second. Madhulika Liddle has written evocatively on her blog about how vital Dharmendra’s presence—or conspicuous absence—is here. Watching ‘Khamoshi’ again, one has to agree. He’s hardly there, and yet, he’s the whole film.

Frank Worrell in ‘Around The World’, 1967
Sir Frank Worrell was one of the great West Indian cricketers of his day, an elegant batsman and the nation’s first black captain. The Indian public at the time would have known that he donated blood after Nari Contractor was hit on the head in a 1961 match and taken to hospital. So it’s not that strange that Worrell would make a minute-long appearance in the Caribbean segment of ‘Around The World’, one of those globe-trotting films that came into vogue in the 1960s. A drunk Om Prakash introduces Worrell to Mehmood and proceeds to quiz him about Milkha Singh (“India’s fastest bowler”), Shammi Kapoor (“India’s greatest wicketkeeper”) and Mohammed Rafi (“India’s opening bat who’s always not out”). True to form, the cricketer handles this nonsense with equanimity. Sadly, he died away before the film released, which is why it opens with the intertitle “Dedicated to the loving memory of Sir Frank Worrell”.

Dilip Kumar in ‘Koshish’, 1972
Out for a stroll, Hari (Sanjeev Kumar) and Aarti (Jaya Bachchan) see a phone booth and decide to ring up people at random—never mind that they’re both mute. Their first two victims yell and hang up when they hear wordless noises at the other end. Of all the numbers in all the phonebooks in all of Bombay, they reach Dilip Kumar on their third attempt. He’s patient at first, but eventually gives up, muttering, “This guy speaks even softer than I do.”

Amitabh and Jaya Bachchan in ‘Ki & Ka’, 2016
‘Ki & Ka’ isn’t the smartest of films but at least it gets its cinematic references right. Businesswoman Kia (Kareena Kapoor Khan) starts feeling insecure when her hitherto unemployed husband, Kabir (Arjun Kapoor), becomes famous as a homemaker. It’s ‘Abhimaan’ with the roles reversed, a point underlined with a thick red marker when Kabir is invited to meet Amitabh and Jaya Bachchan, who acted in the 1973 film about a singer jealous of his wife’s success. In an earlier scene, Jaya ribs her husband about whether he could have given up his career for her. Of course, he responds. “Rubbish,” she says. “You can’t boil a cup of water.”

Pran in ‘Guddi’, 1971
One well-worn legend of Indian cinema is that parents refused to name their children Pran for several decades. That his screen villainy would spill over into real life must have been a source of some irritation for the actor. It’s pleasing to see the Pran-as-scoundrel myth gently deflated in ‘Guddi’. Pran, playing himself, turns up during a film shoot, chats with Dharmendra (also playing himself) and impulsively gives him his watch. When movie-crazy Guddi (Jaya Bachchan) warns Dharmendra that there’s likely to be some ulterior motive attached to the gift, he laughs and tells her that Pran is an exceptionally helpful person in real life.

All the cameos in ‘Luck By Chance’, 2009
There may be films with more celebrity appearances than ‘Luck By Chance’, but Zoya Akhtar’s film has them all beat when it comes to cameo quality. One perfect guest spot follows another: Mac Mohan delivering his famous line from ‘Sholay’ for an acting class; a dapper Aamir Khan in period get-up shooting for a film within the film; Akshaye Khanna doing an exquisite bit of squirming. Karan Johar and Shah Rukh Khan turning up to deliver hard truths about the film business. And Anurag Kashyap is very funny as a writer visibly lacking in confidence and describing a dramatic scene in detail, only to be dismissed with “Oye, institute…”

Juhi Chawla in ‘Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa’ and ‘Andaz Apna Apna’, 1994
In 1994, Shah Rukh Khan’s star was on the rise, but even then, the idea that Deepak Tijori would get the girl instead of him at the end just seemed wrong. Luckily, the last scene of Kundan Shah’s film restores the natural order of things with a charming deus ex machina. Juhi Chawla, playing an unnamed directions-seeker with six bags, enters and, 3 minutes later, walks off with Khan. That same year, Chawla also turned up opposite another Khan—Aamir—as a hilariously filmi version of herself in ‘Andaz Apna Apna’. Two very different cameos, both excellent distillations of Chawla’s comic talent and easy charm.

Deepti Naval in ‘NH10’, 2015
On the run from a group of homicidal men led by Satbir (Darshan Kumar), Meera (Anushka Sharma) is offered shelter by a village ‘sarpanch’, Ammaji. Since it’s Deepti Naval—who usually plays level-headed, likeable characters—in the role, we in the audience let our guard down as well, even though ‘NH10’ has given us no reason to feel hopeful from the start. It’s only after precious moments have elapsed that Meera realizes Ammaji is Satbir’s mother, as ruthless and honour-obsessed as her son. It’s a great example of casting against type, playing on audience expectations of what a Naval character would be like, and then turning them on their head.

Naseeruddin Shah in ‘Party’, 1984
Govind Nihalani’s caustic ‘Party’ is bookended by visions of Amrit (Naseeruddin Shah). In the first scene, we hear his voice as Sona (Deepa Sahi) reads a letter from him. From then on, he’s a constant presence, his actions and motives dissected by guests at an arty get-together. News eventually arrives that he’s been attacked and killed. In the film’s last scene, Amrit finally appears as a nightmarish vision for two of the guests. He walks in a daze towards the camera, his tongue cut out, looking like something out of a zombie movie. It’s as if the verbal savagery and spiritual anomie of the guests has taken physical form.

Shashi Kapoor in ‘Ijaazat’, 1987
In ‘Ijaazat’, Sudha (Rekha) and Mahender (Naseeruddin Shah) meet by chance in a railway station waiting room. The two used to be married. Towards the end, just as Mahender seems on the verge of suggesting they get back together, a man in a suit bursts in and apologizes to Sudha for keeping her waiting. It turns out that Sudha has married again. As she leaves the room in tears and walks down the platform, the husband (played by Shashi Kapoor) realizes who it is he’s just met, and turns and gives Mahender a dazzling smile. Whether it’s a smile of commiseration, awkwardness or forced joviality is impossible to say.

Everyone in the Mahabharat scene in ‘Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro’, 1983
Along with the musical duel from ‘Padosan’, this is a strong contender for the funniest Hindi film scene of all time. A stage production of the Mahabharat is crashed by the film’s heroes and villains, just as the disrobing of Draupadi is about to take place. Several actors appear only in this one scene: Adil Rana as the sleep-deprived Bhim; Jaspal Sandhu as the blind Dhritarashtra, who valiantly stays in character even as everything collapses around him; Uday Chandra as Yudhisthira, with his warnings of “Shaant, gadadhari Bhim”; and Vidhu Vinod Chopra as Dushasana, who hits his lines so hard that they’re doubly funny.

Kaifi Azmi’s in ‘Sone Ki Chidiya’, 1958
In ‘Sone Ki Chidiya’ (1958), a writer, Shrikant, recites a Kaifi Azmi poem, called ‘Makaan’. Though it’s Balraj Sahni on screen saying “Aaj ki raat bahut garm hava chalti hai…”, the sonorous voice is that of Azmi. Years later, Sahni would star in the Partition drama ‘Garm Hava’, written by Azmi.

Bertrand Russell in ‘Aman’, 1967
There are unlikely cameos, and then there’s Bertrand Russell wearing bright red shoes and sharing a scene with Rajendra Kumar in ‘Aman’ (1967). The British philosopher was strongly in favour of nuclear disarmament, so it makes thematic sense (if no other kind) that he would turn up as himself in a film about an Indian doctor who goes to help the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The two-and-a-half-minute scene in which Kumar’s character seeks the 94-year-old’s blessings at his London home, is fascinatingly awkward, with Kumar’s line delivery in English fairly dodgy and part of Russell’s answer drowned out by narration in Hindi.

Madhuri Dixit in ‘Dharavi’, 1992
Madhuri Dixit revealed in an interview how, for her role in ‘Dharavi’, she drew on an encounter she’d once had with a fan who approached her and began talking as if he were an old friend. “I was startled initially, but felt sympathy for him too,” she said. This sympathy is palpable in ‘Dharavi’, in which she’s the embodiment of the narcotic hold cinema has over the residents of Mumbai. Rajkaran (Om Puri) lives in the titular slum and drives a taxi for a living. His gritty, hardscrabble existence is contrasted with his pastel-shaded dreams, in which Dixit (as an impossibly glamorous version of herself) is in love with him.

Johnny Walker in ‘Anand’, 1971
Anand (Rajesh Khanna), the cheerful terminal case at the centre of Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s 1971 film, has a habit of hailing strangers as his old pal Murarilal. This approach is unsuccessful until comedian Johnny Walker comes along and responds to Anand’s overtures by calling him Jaichand. The two of them set about inventing details of a long friendship, until the impatient Bhaskar (Amitabh Bachchan) points out that Anand isn’t Jaichand. With the placidity of Joe E. Brown saying “Nobody’s perfect” at the end of ‘Some Like It Hot’, Walker points out that his name isn’t Murarilal either, but Issabhai Suratwala. Later, Walker supplies the line about life and death being in the hands of the one above, which Anand borrows for his goodbye message to Bhaskar.

Anil Mange in ‘PK’, 2014
A thriving genre in the early years of Indian cinema, the mythological is virtually extinct today. The gods are usually invoked for satirical purposes now, as in Rajkumar Hirani’s ‘PK’, with Aamir Khan’s alien exposing the hollowness of organized religion. A standout sequence is his encounter with a stage performer (Anil Mange, painted blue) who is playing Shiva. ‘PK’ comes across him and, assuming that he’s seeing God on earth, starts to pursue him. What follows is a memorable bit of slapstick acting from Khan and Mange, whose large eyes convey his character’s confusion and growing panic.

Harindranath Chattopadhyay in ‘Chala Murari Hero Banne’, 1977
Harindranath Chattopadhyay, born in 1898, was a poet, a musician, a member of Parliament and a Padma Bhushan awardee. He also worked in films, playing Daduji in ‘Bawarchi’ and Barfi in ‘Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne’, and composing the famous ‘Rail Gaadi’ poem popularized by Ashok Kumar in ‘Aashirwad’. So it’s possible that audiences in 1977 would have recognized the silver-haired gent whom Asrani seeks out in ‘Chala Murari Hero Banne’. He’s only there for a minute and a half, but he gets a great exit line, which drives home just how long he’s been on the scene. Asked if he taught Sanskrit to Raj Kapoor, he replies, “I did teach it, but to Prithviraj (Raj’s father).”

Rajiv Gaur in ‘Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!’, 2008
Early on in ‘Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!,’ Rajiv Gaur’s restaurant waiter realizes that young Lucky is trying to impress his date and won’t be able to pay for the full meal he’s ordering. He recommends a plate of ‘paneer pakodas’ instead—a suggestion that’s both helpful and cutting (you don’t have to go to a restaurant to order ‘pakodas’). Gaur’s brief turn puts him in the upper echelon of memorable waiters in Hindi films, along with the bewildered hotel employee who takes Aamir Khan’s order in ‘Rangeela’ and the smiling server in ‘Chashme Buddoor’, who responds to Farooq Shaikh’s query of “Yahaan accha kya hai?” with “Mahaul accha hai.”

Bal Thackeray in ‘India 67’, 1968
Sukhdev’s documentary, commissioned to celebrate 20 years of independence, paints a complex portrait of a country still finding its feet. The film bristles with nervous energy, never more so than in the scenes featuring a Shiv Sena rally in Bombay. For a few seconds, a young, clean-shaven Bal Thackeray appears on screen, addressing a rally. The Sena was barely a year old at this point, but its aggressive outlook is already apparent in a poster that reads: “Halt encroachment on Marathi peoples’ rights or else face?”

Irrfan Khan in ‘Haider’, 2014
In Vishal Bhardwaj’s film, the father and the ghost—one and the same in ‘Hamlet’, which ‘Haider’ is an adaptation of—are split into separate characters. We encounter the father early in the film, while the ghost turns up just before the interval. As guttural bass plays on the soundtrack, an out-of-focus figure is seen against a snowy backdrop. As he gets nearer, he’s revealed to be Irrfan Khan. The actor pauses once he’s close to the camera, flips his shawl theatrically and scowls at us from behind dark glasses. It’s the big hero entry scene, reserved here for a supporting character. Even his name is jaw-droppingly theatrical: Roohdar, keeper of the spirit.

Everyone at the film premiere in ‘Kala Bazar’, 1960
As stars arrive one by one for the premiere of ‘Mother India’ at Liberty cinema in Bombay, touts offer desperate onlookers a chance to join them inside—at a special price, of course. This sequence from ‘Kala Bazar’ would have worked simply as a celeb-spotting lollapalooza, but director Vijay Anand renders it stunningly dynamic, building from the muttered offers of the ticket-sellers to the arrivals of, and frenzied crowd reactions to, Guru Dutt, Lata Mangeshkar, Kishore Kumar, Kumkum, Sohrab Modi, Mohammad Rafi, Rajendra Kumar, Dillip Kumar, Nargis and others.

Asha Bhosle in ‘Taxi Taxie’, 1977
The most effective cameos are often those in which viewers are expected to bring their own knowledge of, and associations with, the celebrity to the viewing process. ‘Taxi Taxie’ appears to take a sly dig at the fabled sibling rivalry between Asha Bhosle and Lata Mangeshkar. Jyoti (Zaheera) comes to the studio to record what she hopes will be her big break. She is distraught when she realizes Bhosle is singing lead and she’s one of the backing vocalists. She spends the first half of the song weeping, before summoning up courage and cutting in just as Bhosle is about to start the next stanza. Now it’s Jyoti singing the track, and Mangeshkar on playback. The idea of Mangeshkar interrupting her younger sister is amusing enough, but Zaheera’s fervour when she starts to sing and Bhosle’s startled expression—prolonged with a freeze frame—make this an inadvertently hilarious moment.

Aishwarya Rai Bachchan in ‘Bunty Aur Babli’, 2005
The item number has its own rich, crackling history; it’s not so much a subset of the cameo as a whole different thing. For the purposes of this list, we’ll include just one recent example. ‘Kajra Re’ from ‘Bunty Aur Babli’ didn’t reinvent the form, it just perfected it. Everything about the sequence—from Aishwarya Rai Bachchan’s swivelling to the glorious strings on the soundtrack to Gulzar’s knack for unexpected metaphors—is catchy and glamorous and pretty much irresistible. There are more spectacular item songs (‘Chaiyya Chaiyya’) and more self-aware ones (’I Hate You (Like I Love You)’—but few are as purely fun as this.

Hrishikesh Mukherjee in ‘Biwi Aur Makan’, 1966
Though he loved including star cameos in his films, Hrishikesh Mukherjee wasn’t one for straying into the eye of the camera himself. He’s seen briefly in ‘Guddi’ with his back to us, the cinematographer addressing him as “Hrishi-da”. You can get a slightly better look at him in the ‘Rehne Ko Ghar Do’ song sequence from ‘Biwi Aur Makan’. As Mehmood and his friends wander around singing about the difficulties of finding affordable accommodation, they come across Mukherjee on the street and sing a line to him. As ‘Mint Lounge’ columnist Jai Arjun Singh points out in his book ‘The World Of Hrishikesh Mukherjee’, it’s fitting that the young men seem to address the song to the director, given that they’re asking for space in one of his “plots”.

Vijay Anand in ‘Tere Ghar Ke Samne’, 1963
For a director, Vijay Anand did a fair bit of acting, but one of his most famous appearances lasts all of 5 seconds. As Dev Anand and Nutan are dallying on the winding steps of Qutub Minar during the ‘Dil Ka Bhanwar’ sequence in ‘Tere Ghar Ke Samne’, getting just a little close, they’re interrupted by a party making its way up. It’s led by Vijay Anand, who overreacts most amusingly, gesturing unsubtly to his companions to give the lovers a wide berth (difficult on that narrow staircase), adjusting his glasses at Dev and Nutan, and covering up a giggle as he walks out of view. That an elder brother is being judged for his public romancing by his younger sibling makes this moment even funnier.

The Corkes/Hamid Sayani in ‘Taxi Driver’, 1954
In ‘Taxi Driver’, Sheila Ramani’s backing musicians in the bar number ‘Dil Se Milake Dil Pyar’ are a man on guitar, a woman on piano, a flaxen-haired boy on maracas and a dark-haired one playing the clarinet. This, as Sidharth Bhatia writes in ‘Cinema Modern: The Navketan Story’, was the Corke family, musicians and owners of the Pali Hill flat where Chetan Anand, Taxi Driver’s director, lived. Apart from the Corkes, there’s another notable guest spot: Hamid Sayani, a magician and brother of radio legend Ameen Sayani, himself a popular voice on the airwaves. He appears for a scene and does a few neat sleight-of-hand tricks as a prelude to making a move on Mala (Kalpana Kartik).

The names on the blackboard in ‘C.I.D.’, 1956
Cameos in name only. If you look behind Johnny Walker as he’s being interrogated at a police station in Raj Khosla’s ‘C.I.D.’, there’s a blackboard with a list of names in chalk next to the crimes these people have committed. You can just about make out “A. Alvi”, “P. Chakravorty” and “O.P. Nayyar”. These “criminals” were actually crew members: Pramod Chakravorty was the assistant director, O.P. Nayyar the composer and Abrar Alvi an informal script consultant.

Subodh Roy in ‘Chittagong’, 2012
Bedabrata Pain’s film tells the story of the 1930 Chittagong Uprising, in which a group of Bengali men and boys under schoolteacher Surya Sen briefly took their town back from the British. It’s told through the eyes of 14-year-old Subodh Roy (Delzad Hilwade), who joins Sen’s movement and is arrested and sent to the Andamans when it collapses. He’s released in 1939, and returns to Bengal to continue the struggle. In a moving coda, the real Roy, by then 90 and very frail, appears on screen just long enough to say, “It was the most glorious episode of my life.”

Dewan Basheswarnath Kapoor in ‘Awaara’, 1951
The judge in ‘Awaara’ is played by Dewan Basheswarnath Kapoor, father of Prithviraj Kapoor and Raj’s grandfather. It’s unusual enough to have son, father and grandfather in the same scene, but what’s even stranger is that Basheswarnath agreed to appear on screen at all. In Madhu Jain’s ‘The Kapoors: The First Family Of Indian Cinema’, there’s a story about Prithviraj telling his father he wanted to be an actor, and Kapoor Sr berating him by saying that he was going to be a ‘kanjar’ (bastard).

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The BFG: Review

Having pondered over the nature of justice, patriotism and humanity in his last two films, Steven Spielberg was likely feeling the pull of fantasy, a call he’s never ignored for very long. His new film is an adaptation of The BFG, Roald Dahl’s classic children’s book, and the careful negotiations of Lincoln and Bridge Of Spies have been replaced by giants, dream-catching and fart jokes (albeit reserved British fart jokes). Yet, to view this film simply as Spielberg stretching his legs before getting down to more serious projects would be to ignore his evident affection for the source material, and the very Spielbergian stamp he puts on it.

When Wes Anderson adapted Fantastic Mr. Fox in 2009, it was surprising how well it turned out, for there seemed to be little in common between his artistic sensibility and Dahl’s. Spielberg and Dahl are a more natural fit, two consummate storytellers with a fondness for adventure stories and a tendency to put children at the centre of their narratives. Alongside such plucky Dahl child protagonists as Charlie, Matilda and James, one could place the Spielberg triumvirate of Elliott, Jim and David. The film-maker might also have responded to the missing, often dead, parents in Dahl’s books, given that his own filmography is studded with absent and difficult fathers.

Published in 1982, The BFG told the story of Sophie, who is abducted by a giant from the London orphanage she lives in. Luckily for her, this particular giant doesn’t eat human beings like his compatriots. He’s a gentle soul—soon assuming the title of Big Friendly Giant, which his young charge shortens to BFG. Sophie and he, lonely souls both, become friends, go dream-catching and eventually hatch a plan to combat the other giants.

The film is faithful to the original text, with Dahl’s unabashedly silly nonsense prose (“That is the scrumdiddlyumptious snozzcumber”) and mixture of grotesqueness and grace pretty much intact. It’s a children’s film in the sense that it isn’t psychologically complex and 6- to 12-year-olds will probably be the ones who’ll enjoy it most, but note, if you will, the visual detail that Spielberg and his long-time cinematographer Janusz Kaminski bring to the production. There may not be anything on the level of the bicycle taking flight in E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, but almost every scene has little tricks of light and perspective that would never occur to more workmanlike directors. And John Williams’ music lifts the heart, as it always does.

Sophie is played by Ruby Barnhill, one of those formidable British child actors whose pronunciation is better than yours will ever be. Mark Rylance is the giant, made up and CGI-enhanced to look like Quentin Blake’s original illustrations, with huge ears and scraggly hair. For someone who's become famous playing characters who always have their guard up (Thomas Cromwell in the TV series Wolf Hall; Rudolf Abel in Bridge Of Spies, for which he won an Oscar), Rylance is unexpectedly gentle and warm as the giant who hears the “secret whisperings of the world” and tells Sophie that he didn’t steal her “very much”. He’s teaming up with Spielberg again for Ready Player One; theirs is one of the more exciting developing partnerships in Hollywood today.

This review appeared in Mint.

Olympics on film

In her memoirs, Leni Riefenstahl described the image that started to form when she was approached to film the 1936 Berlin Olympics. “In my mind’s eye,” she writes, “I could see the ancient ruins of the classical Olympic sites slowly emerging from paths of fog and the Greek temples and sculptures drifting by: Achilles and Aphrodite, Medusa and Zeus, Apollo and Paris, and then the discus thrower of Myron. I dreamed that this statue changed into a man of flesh and blood, gradually starting to swing the discus in slow motion.”

Six minutes into Riefenstahl’s Olympia, this exact scene comes to life. In a shot as aesthetically loaded as it is politically, Myron’s statue of a sinewy discuss-thrower, Discobolus, transforms into nude decathlete Erwin Huber. As with so many scenes in the film, one could see this as a tribute to the beauty of the human form or as a confirmation of the Nazi ideal of Germans as a master race, true inheritors of Greek physical prowess. That’s what makes viewing any Riefenstahl film so complicated: she was one of the great visionaries of cinema, whose most famous works glorified Hitler and the Nazi Party.

Olympia is an ode to the human form in stillness and in motion. Few directors have captured bodies on film the way Riefenstahl did. Watching the film, it’s quickly apparent that the director is largely uninterested in chronology and dry detail; she’d rather show an athlete in follow-through than follow a javelin in flight. Editing for 18 months, Riefenstahl cut out all the prose. We’re left with the poetry: the opening with the nude bodies; the long, relaxed passage with athletes stretching and practising; the astonishing diving sequence that becomes increasingly abstract. Whatever the overarching ideology, there’s no doubt that Riefenstahl found beauty in all races, whether in the graceful form of Jesse Owens (whose interactions with Riefenstahl are an intriguing subplot in the fictional biopic Race) or the wiry Korean Kitei Son, who won the gold in the marathon for Japan.

Riefenstahl’s closeness to the Nazi Party has resulted in critics seeing what they want to see in Olympia. American critics Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris, often at odds with each other, regarded it as a masterpiece. Many others have glimpsed in all those perfect bodies and the emphasis on winning a “fascist aesthetic”. Most everyone agrees about one thing, though: the film is a masterpiece, possibly the greatest sports documentary ever made.

Though Romolo Marcellini made a straightforward documentary on the 1960 Rome Games, the next great Olympic film arrived in 1965: Kon Ichikawa’s Tokyo Olympiad. Ichikawa, the well-known Japanese director of Fires on the Plain and The Burmese Harp, was given charge of the project when his even better-known countryman Akira Kurosawa backed out. His 170-minute documentary captured the 1964 Tokyo Games in fetching widescreen Cinemascope. It’s every bit as remarkable as Riefenstahl’s film, and very different. If Olympia was Fritz Lang—taut, Teutonic, designed within an inch of its life— Tokyo Olympiad was Robert Altman—loose, funny, with an eye for eccentric detail.

Even more so than Riefenstahl, Ichikawa seems uninterested in following events from start to finish. The scoreboard is rarely shown and athletes are only identified by name occasionally. Neither is his film obsessed with winners. Ichikawa has an eye for the stragglers, the triers and the forgotten. There’s the moment when Ranatunge Karunananda of Sri Lanka does the last lap of the 10,000m after everyone else has finished, the sympathetic crowd cheering him on. And there’s the brief shot of the pentathlete on his cross-country run, a lone figure against the orange sunset. He placed 37th. “We can only surmise what he learnt from this hard experience,” the narrator says.

The somberness of such moments – there’s a vignette involving a mournful-looking runner from Chad – is balanced by a wry humour that seems designed to undercut the sense of occasion that Ichikawa’s financiers were probably hoping he’d play up. The comedy that ensues when the release of pigeons during the opening ceremony goes somewhat awry – athletes ducking and laughing, one of them walking a few steps to give a confused bird a nudge – is in contrast to the orderly build-up that has come before. The enthusiastic narration adds to the film’s charm, combining arcana (“He’s studying the elasticity and resilience of fiberglass,” we’re informed about a pole vaulter) with a genuine sense of appreciation (“This is a sight that warms our hearts,” as the runners complete the marathon).

Its incidental pleasures are so many that it’s easy to forget what an excellent sports film Tokyo Olympiad is. Cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa oversaw 164 cameramen, who used light-weight Arriflex cameras with zoom lenses, which allowed Ichikawa to insert the viewer into the midst of the action. A wrestling bout unfolds in extreme close-up, every grunt and gasp registering. In the weightlifting event, the camera lingers on the athletes’ legs, which tremble under the strain of the hoist. In the free rifle competition, we’re only shown the shooters’ eyes. Slow motion is used often, most memorably for the 80m women’s hurdles final, and at the start of the gymnastics sequence, where an athlete in red practices against a black background.

Ichikawa must have had a special fondness for the Olympics, because he turned up again as one of the filmmakers on Visions of Eight, the portmanteau documentary on the 1972 Munich Games. Eight directors were invited to make shorts whatever piqued their fancy at the Games. Mai Zetterling followed the weightlifters, Arthur Penn the pole-vaulters, Ichikawa the runners. Yuri Ozerov chronicled the start of the Games. Michael Pfleghar concentrated on women athletes. Miloš Forman set the decathlon to music ranging from Beethoven’s 9th Symphony to yodeling.

On paper, Visions of Eight sounds tantalising; yet, the result is somewhat less than the sum of its parts. As Roger Ebert pointed out in his review, no one could have guessed how similar the visions would end up being, with slo-mo shots of athletes turning up in segment after segment. The best contributions came from Claude Lelouch and John Schlesinger, the former chronicling how athletes across disciplines reacted to losing (it has a long single-take shot of a boxer throwing the biggest hissy fit you’ve ever seen). Schlesinger’s segment, “The Longest”, could share a title with a film made by his compatriot Tony Richardson, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. By cutting together marathoner Ron Hill’s preparations in England with his actual run (in which he placed 6th), Schlesinger hints at the special heartbreak of sports in which one competes against oneself most of the time. It’s also the only segment that makes a reference to the killing of 11 Israeli athletes by the terror outfit Black September.

The new millennium ushered in a new era of Olympic auteurship. Prominent directors were hired not only to chronicle but also shape the Games. For the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the Chinese authorities put Zhang Yimou in charge of the opening ceremony. The ceremony was all one might have hoped for from the director of such ravishing films like Hero and House of Flying Daggers. Yimou created a visually overwhelming piece of live theatre, arranging large blocks of people in extraordinary patterns, like an industrial-scale Busby Berkeley.

Yet, in a surprising echo of Olympia and Riefenstahl, people’s interpretations of the proceedings differed widely. If many were vowed by the scale and imagination of the ceremony, others glimpsed signs of militarism, authoritarianism and communism. Though it offered a grudging word or two of praise, the New Yorker ended its appraisal on a sniffy note: “Nobody will ever surpass the mathematical majesty of that night in Beijing, and, in retrospect, that may be a good thing.” Four years later, after the shambolic opening of the London Games – like Beijing, conceptualized by a filmmaker, Danny Boyle – the same publication wrote: “Boyle’s living diorama, as specifically-drawn a world as Middle Earth or Pandora, was the opposite of Beijing’s vague corporate bombast.”

This year too, a filmmaker is on board as one of the creative directors for the opening: Fernando Meirelles, whose most celebrated film, City of God, shows a side of Rio that the organisers would probably not want attention called to. In an interview to The Daily Beast last year, Meirelles mentioned that their budget was slim compared to London’s, and that they’d have to work smarter. “Usually these openings are countries showing off: ‘This is who we are.’ Ours will be different. Ours will be a message for the world,” he said. Content versus form: a conundrum common to the worlds of cinema and sports.

This piece appeared in Mint Lounge. 

Kabali: Review

Getting shot on film sure isn’t what it used to be. Time was someone would take a bullet and they would just die. The Godfather changed that, with Don Corleone getting hit five times and still surviving. At least that don had to fight for his life in hospital. When the don in Kabali is shot twice, everyone reacts as if he’s dead, not even bothering to call for an ambulance. One scene later, he’s alive and on the phone. Elsewhere in the film, a pregnant woman struck by a bullet survives a ride to the hospital, gives birth and lives on.

They say logic isn’t the best yardstick by which to judge a Rajinikanth film. But any film ought to obey the laws of its own universe. If it’s Enthiran we’re talking about, it’s perfectly acceptable that “Superstar” Rajini should be able to talk to mosquitoes. But Kabali is set in the real world, one in which people shouldn’t magically survive shootings, or have amnesia one minute and be cured of it the next. The film is an uneasy hybrid: You get the wish-fulfilment of a Rajinikanth blockbuster and the gritty gangster drama that director Pa. Ranjith seems to want to make.

After 25 years in prison, Kabali (Rajinikanth) is released from a Kuala Lumpur jail. Even before we get a glimpse of him, he’s a cliché: the gangster with the heart of gold (a police officer argues in favour of his release, saying his Free Life Foundation helps keep Indian children off the streets). Once out, he celebrates by going to the home of one of his rival’s henchmen, beating him up (to send a message that Kabali’s back) and freeing a parrot. What a great guy, the film seems to say. He helps troubled teens and he’s a bird-lover.

With Kuala Lumpur having come under the control of his rivals Tony Lee (Winston Chao) and Vijay Singh (Kishore), you would expect Kabali to set about dismantling their empire. Instead, he’s distracted by visions of his late wife, Rupa Devi (Radhika Apte), and driven by revenge. We learn the circumstances of her death in an extended flashback that also serves as the Kabali origin story. Though it has shades of Nayakan, this is one of the stronger passages in the film, showing us how Kabali became the people’s leader on a Kuala Lumpur estate run with Indian labour, then a strongman for a local crime boss and, finally, the boss himself.

As I watched Rajinikanth as young Kabali, clean-shaven and looking like the Superstar of yore in his trademark shades, I wondered how these scenes would have been received in Chennai. Rajini flicking his hair would probably be greeted with delirious cheers there, instead of seeming—as it did to me—faintly ridiculous. I also wondered whether Hindi-speaking audiences would be quite as thrilled if Amitabh Bachchan appeared in a film dressed up as his character from Zanjeer. I rather doubt it. Having fans isn’t the same thing as having devotees.

So how does Rajini fare? He’s 65, but a sprightly 65. If there’s one thing the film gets right, it’s the older Kabali’s look: salt and pepper hair, grey beard, white shirt, grey suit, dark glasses. He looks like a cold-blooded gangster, but the film keeps softening the character; he’s certainly the most forgiving crime boss I’ve ever seen. The version of the film that I watched was dubbed in Hindi, so the rhythms of his speech were lost, and his “punch” lines lost in translation (he keeps saying “bahut khoob”—which has all the punch of a baby’s fist). For me, the most intriguing note in his performance was the genuine panic he seems to show when he starts seeing Rupa everywhere. An ageing crime boss who is losing his mind might have been a more compelling premise than the boilerplate (and lazily plotted) gangster story that Ranjith, who also wrote the film, comes up with here.

There are a few incidental pleasures. Dinesh gets in a nice comic turn as an over-eager member of Kabali’s gang. Chao’s tailor deserves some sort of award for dressing him up as a Chinese crime boss version of The Hunger Games’ Caesar Flickerman. But ultimately, one is left wondering what a genuinely gritty gangster film starring Rajinikanth—who can still smirk with the best of them—would have looked like. This one seems smitten, as Rupa declares herself to be, by the masti in its lead actor’s eyes.

This review appeared in Mint.

Star Trek Beyond: Review

Like the last film in the Fast And Furious series, Star Trek Beyond is marked and made poignant by death. Leonard Nimoy, who played Spock in the original TV series and made a guest appearance in the 2009 reboot, died before shooting started. He’s paid tribute to in the film, something that couldn’t be done for Anton Yelchin, who died in a freak accident in June. Seeing him on screen as Chekov is disconcerting and distressing, like watching the final bow of a ghost.

I would be misrepresenting Star Trek Beyond, though, if I made it sound like an Ingmar Bergman production aboard the Enterprise. Justin Lin’s film is actually quite a cheery affair—there’s little philosophical hand-wringing, and whenever things get emotional there’s always McCoy (Karl Urban) on hand with a dry remark. Lin has directed four of the seven Fast And Furious films, and if there’s one thing he knows, it’s how to blitz through a 2-hour running time at warp speed. When Kirk (Chris Pine) says at the start that his job has become predictable, even episodic, it’s almost like the director is throwing down a challenge for himself.

On a mission into uncharted space to rescue a stranded ship, the Enterprise comes under attack from a swarm of ships commanded by the villainous Krall. Though his features are warped beyond recognition, Krall is played by Idris Elba, which begs the question: when you have Elba in your film, why bury him under layers of make-up? The Enterprise comes apart in the attack and crashlands on Krall’s planet. The rest of the film is dedicated largely to Kirk, Spock (Zachary Quinto), Scotty (Simon Pegg, also the film’s co-writer), Sulu (John Cho), Uhura (Zoe Saldana) and Chekhov regrouping and, with the help of new ally Jaylah (Sofia Boutella), trying to stop Krall before he constructs a giant weapon of some sort that’s powered by an artefact in Kirk’s possession.

If the last film in this series proved anything, it’s that there’s only place for one tall, white, unemotional character in a Star Trek film—and that person has pointy ears. Star Trek Beyond returns to the eternal love story between Kirk and Spock, with McCoy as wry commentator and Uhura temporarily cast aside. It’s reassuring to hear the two express, like shy lovers, their admiration for each other, just as it’s nice to be able to count on Chekov’s enthusiasm or Scotty’s creative panic. There’s nothing remotely path-breaking about this film, but the visible affection of the actors for the characters they’re playing makes Star Trek Beyond more enjoyable than any third film in a franchise has a right to be.

This review appeared in Mint.