Monday, May 1, 2017

Baahubali 2: The Conclusion: The Review

At several points during Baahubali 2: The Conclusion, the audience I was watching it with whooped and whistled. Mostly it was at something Prabhas did, like throwing a tree at charging soldiers or jumping from one flaming, stampeding bull to another. At times, I felt a cheer rising within me as well, but it would remain stifled, often as a result of an over-ambitious visual effect or an especially florid bit of Hindi dubbing, but also because it’s difficult to applaud aspects of a film while disagreeing with the whole.

Some films will set your pulse racing even as they espouse the exact opposite of your worldview; others you’ll want to like but not be able to bring yourself to. Baahubali 2 is undoubtedly a spectacular action film. It’s also a tradition-bound, caste-conscious macho militarist fantasy.

The first Baahubali film ended with Kattappa (Sathyaraj) explaining to Shiva (Prabhas)—actually Mahendra Baahubali, rightful heir to the kingdom of Mahishmati—why he killed his father, Amarendra Baahubali (also Prabhas), the former king. His explanation took the form of an extended flashback, which continues in the sequel as we’re beaten over the head with scene after scene designed to show how virtuous and beloved of his people Amarendra was. We’re also reintroduced to Devasena (Anushka Shetty), the princess of a small state, who becomes Amarendra’s wife. Shetty thus plays wife and mother to Prabhas in the same film. If they ever have another film in the series, it might be “Baahubali: Freudian Issues”.

Because we already know that Kattappa is going to kill Amarendra, everything is necessarily a build-up to this moment. It’s a long, long time coming—and a good indicator of how invested you are in the mythology of the Baahubali universe is to note if the wait starts to weigh on you. Not that there are many dull moments: in one 30-minute stretch, for instance, writer-director S.S. Rajamouli follows a sneak attack in the forest with low comedy, a boar hunt, more comedy (sold with hammy exuberance by Subbaraju, playing an inept warrior), a song sequence and a bona-fide battle. It feels like there’s always an action scene, or a song, or a set-piece happening. It’s as if the makers have determined that if anyone is going to get bored, they’ll have to do it in spite of the narrative, not because of it.

Baahubali 2 isn’t the kind of film that waits for its audience; it comes to you. Whatever historical time period this story is taking place in, it isn’t the Age of Nuance. A follower of the evil king, Bhallala Deva (Rana Daggubati), can’t just be a schemer, he has to be a pervert too; Amarendra can’t just be a regular benevolent ruler, he has to give up his dinner for poor children and be fed by their teary mothers. The plot is reasonably well worked out, but character motivations are often sketchy—including, crucially, Katappa’s. Even by epic action film standards, the performances are broad. In the rare moments when there’s more talk than action, the film assumes the hyperbolic qualities of a tele-series; the scenes featuring Sivagami (Ramya Krishnan, overdoing the eye-popping a bit) and Devasena, in particular, would make for a great Ekta Kapoor-style mythological soap (Kyunki Rajmata Bhi Kabhi Saas Thi?)

Still, what makes Rajamouli’s films unique is that, in the midst of the most incredible silliness, there’ll suddenly arrive a breath-taking image or a fluid, heart-pounding shot. I was laughing when, during a battle scene, Mahendra catapults himself and a few others onto a terrace with the help of a handy tree. But once he lands, the scene transforms into something ridiculously attractive—a continuous sideways shot of him slashing his way through enemy ranks, blood flying in theatrical arcs.

For a film that’s highly invested in ritual and tradition, it is perhaps revealing that when Baahubali 2 wants to make a point about valour, it reaches for the grammar of the caste system. Time and again we’re told what it means to be Kshatriya; how, when it’s required, a true Kshatriya will reveal their warrior nature. This sort of talk is worrying—whether or not Rajamouli has included it unthinkingly. To mention one caste is to refer to the entire system; to extol the virtues of one is to deny the same qualities in the others.

For those who think questions of caste and sexism and racism shouldn’t be directed at big-budget entertainers, I can only say that I believe there couldn’t be anything more important. Hollywood is making further inroads into the Indian film market every year. If Baahubali 2 is a hit, we might be seeing many more “event films” of its kind in the near future. Whether we ask much of these films is up to us.

This review appeared in Mint.

The man who kept the movies safe

P.K. Nair died on 4 March 2016. I wonder if someone had shown him a British Film Institute short released months before his death. Titled Film Is Fragile, this minute-and-a-half video is a call to preserve celluloid film. In a series of chase scenes from existing movies, the scenery dissolves in the manner of deteriorating film reels. The effect is oddly beautiful, but the point being made is this: Film preservation is an urgent activity, delay is death.

Nair would likely have agreed. He understood the importance of film preservation before almost anyone else in the country, and worked all his life towards this goal. He joined the National Film Archive of India as assistant curator in 1965 and over the years, through his doggedness and guile (legend says he would make a clandestine duplicate of any print that was loaned to the NFAI if it wasn’t already in the archive), managed to save countless films from almost certain extinction. But apart from being an archivist, Nair had a deep knowledge of, and pronounced views on, cinema—something which Yesterday’s Films For Tomorrow, the first collection of his writings, celebrates.

As screenwriter and author (and the book’s editor) Rajesh Devraj states plainly in his excellent introduction: “Nair was not a writer by profession, and it shows sometimes in these occasional writings.” This is undeniable. Nair’s prose is perfectly serviceable (especially when one considers the febrile, hyperbolic nature of most non-academic film writing in India), occasionally vivid, but mainly a vessel to get his thoughts across. It seems significant that the pieces in this book are drawn from film society anthologies, festival booklets and books on film preservation: publications which would likely prize ideas above prose style.

Some of the most evocative writing comes in the first two chapters, in which Nair recalls his first movie-going experiences in 1940s Thiruvananthapuram. This is the sort of cinema that cannot be contemplated now, with narrators for the silent films, and five or six breaks in the action so that the reel could be changed. His family wasn’t keen on cinema, so Nair would sneak out late at night and watch the second half of the last screening. He would then catch the first half at a later date.

Credit: Film Heritage Foundation
More than the polemics, the pieces that stand out in Yesterday’s Films are the ones informed by personal memory. There’s a tribute to the director Mehboob, whom Nair had worked with as an unpaid assistant in the 1950s. Nair’s facility with cinema allows him to compare Mehboob’s shift from character dramas like Andaz to large-scale epics like Mother India to American film-maker William Wyler becoming Cecil B. DeMille (though it could just have as easily been the Wyler of Great Expectations and Brief Encounter becoming the Wyler of Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago). Similarly, the chapter titled “Film Preservation In India” is a fascinating account of locating old film reels and obtaining them for the NFAI. To save some of Dadasaheb Phalke’s rare films, he transported highly inflammable nitrate reels in a taxi from Nashik to Pune. “Every time the car took a bump, my heart jumped,” he writes.

Even if you’re an inveterate film-lover, Yesterday’s Films presents a few obstacles. There is a fair bit of repetition of both argument and fact—something to be expected from someone who wasn’t a professional writer, and, more crucially, wasn’t leaving all these pieces behind to be read (the book also includes diary entries and files found on his computer). The writing, as previously mentioned, is a little stolid; in addition, the scolding tone he adopts in his earlier pieces about mainstream cinema will probably displease those who like to mix in a little Govinda with their Gopalakrishnan. My advice would be to ignore the troughs and wait for the crests: the chapter on the song in Indian cinema; the comparison of Mauritz Stiller’s Erotikon (1920) and Santosh Sivan’s The Terrorist (1997); his elevation of P.C. Barua’s Devdas over Bimal Roy’s version because of the sympathy for its female characters.

After years of being Indian cinema’s best-kept secret, Nair is finally in the public eye (even if it’s a very niche, arthouse cinema-loving public). Readers of Yesterday’s Films can supplement the experience by watching Celluloid Man, Shivendra Singh Dungarpur’s 2012 documentary on Nair, which serendipitously turned up on Netflix earlier this month. The one thing the book hints at and the documentary confirms is the high esteem Nair is held in by those whom we would consider legends of Indian cinema. In the book, Nair writes that whenever he was asked why he didn’t direct himself, he would reply, “I would rather make film-makers than films.” The tributes heaped upon him in the film by Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Gulzar, Basu Chatterjee and Mrinal Sen would suggest that he did.

This piece appeared in Mint Lounge.

Jonathan Demme: Something wild and wonderful

Those who watch a lot of movies but don’t pay attention to the credits might be surprised to learn that the person who made The Silence of the Lambs also made Melvin and Howard, or that the director of Something Wild is also the director of Philadelphia. Actually, Jonathan Demme made all these movies, as well as Stop Making Sense, Married to the Mob, Citizens Band and Rachel Getting Married. There’s a Demme for every occasion – only now, sadly, there’s no Demme. The director died on Wednesday morning, aged 73, in his Manhattan apartment, of complications from cancer and heart disease.

Demme began his film-making career with Roger Corman, the B-movie producer who launched, among others, Francis Ford Coppola, Peter Bogdanovich, Joe Dante, Ron Howard and Curtis Hanson in the movie business. Demme directed three films for Corman, including Caged Heat (1974), a women-in-prison film that’s considered something of an exploitation classic. “I’ve known a number of directors who’ve taken a job because it’s a little picture and said, well, I’ll just toss it off,” Corman said on the WTF With Marc Maron podcast earlier this year. “I’ve known other guys – and Demme is one of them – who, if I give a women’s prison picture, will say, ‘I will make the best women’s prison picture ever made.’”

His first non-Corman film was for Paramount, a 1977 Nebraska-set comedy called Citizens Band (retitled Handle with Care). Next up was Melvin and Howard, based on a true story about an unlikely beneficiary mentioned in Howard Hughes’ will. It was his first exceptional film, and Mary Steenburgen won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her portrayal of Melvin’s first wife, sparking the legend of Demme as a facilitator of Academy Award-winning (or just plain great) performances.

Demme followed this with a series of sparkling comedies: Swing Shift (1984), with Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn; Something Wild (1986), with Melanie Griffith and Jeff Bridges; and Married to the Mob (1988), with Michelle Pfeiffer. In each, you can see Demme’s ear for music, his knack for detail, and his genuine curiosity about all his characters, major and minor (in her review of Something Wild, critic Pauline Kael said: “I can’t think of any other director who is so instinctively and democratically interested in everybody he shows you.”) He ventures into non-fiction were just as remarkable: the fluid, inventive Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense (1984); Swimming to Cambodia (1987), built around Spalding Gray’s monologues; Cousin Bobby (1992), about his relative, a fiery Episcopalian minister.

Had Demme continued making his idiosyncratic mid-budget films into the ‘90s, how would history regard him? It’s worth noting that Demme’s next two films – both quite different from anything he’d done before – would be the ones he’d become widely associated with. First, there was the clinical brilliance of The Silence of the Lambs (1991), which won five Oscars: for film, director, actors (Anthony Hopkins, Jodie Foster) and adapted screenplay (Ted Tally). Two years later came the AIDS rights film Philadelphia, with yet another actor in a Demme film, Tom Hanks, going on to win an Oscar.

Over the next two-and-a-half decades, Demme made only six features, of which the spiky, intimate Rachel Getting Married is probably the best. He did direct a number of documentaries, many of them about music, including three with Neil Young. His influence runs deep; PT Anderson has cited him as one of his biggest stylistic influences, while Wes Anderson termed Demme’s trademark close-ups “the greatest”. Demme’s outlook was best summed up in a tribute by his friend and frequent collaborator, Talking Heads frontman David Byrne. “The fiction films, the music films and the docs are all filled with so much passion and love,” Byrne wrote on his website. “He often turned what would be a genre film into a very personal expression. His view of the world was open, warm, animated and energetic.”

Noor: Review

Any film that begins with an “ancient quote” attributed to Buddha believes in the power of the Weighty Statement. Such a film is Noor (based on Saba Imtiaz’s novel Karachi, You’re Killing Me!), where director Sunhil Sippy and dialogue writer Ishita Moitra Udhwani have their characters saying things like “If I’ve learnt anything it’s that I should live for today” and “You remind me of the person I used to be”. These just aren’t the sort of things people say in their day-to-day lives, which is why they stick out awkwardly in a film that adopts—from its opening voice-over onwards—a breezy, conversational tone.

On the other hand, the writers (Sippy, Althea Delmas-Kaushal and Shikhaa Sharma worked on the screenplay) show impressive speed and skill in sketching their titular character. Noor (Sonakshi Sinha) is klutzy, frumpy (if only by movie star standards), dissatisfied with her job as a sensation-chasing journalist, and prone to complaining about her weight, her love life, and her life in general. She wants to do “issue-based broadcast journalism”; instead, she’s assigned local stories about a woman who never takes her helmet off and a man who only walks on his hands.

I’m unsure whether the film is knowing or oblivious about Noor’s ineptitude at her job. When she lands an actual story—an organ harvesting racket carried out by a doctor working under a charitable trust—she conducts exactly one interview (which could be easily discredited) and immediately heads to office and demands that her editor, Shekhar (Manish Chaudhary), put the story on air. Issue-based broadcast journalism is such a breeze—or so the audience is led to think until things suddenly go south. Yet, even when this happens, the film is more concerned with Noor being cheated out of her story than the high probability that, had it been aired, the story would have invited scorn and possibly a lawsuit.

While an unconvincing portrait of a working journalist, Noor is still a fully realized character: both under- and over-confident, capable of staring down her mentor but also of giddily crushing on 40-something photojournalist Ayan (Purab Kohli). Sinha conveys Noor’s many frustrations through a series of grimaces, eye rolls, pouts, scowls and goofy grins; there’s an amusing dorkiness to Noor, even if her general appearance is a little too perfect for someone who’s just woken up hungover. Kohli supplies smarm and little charm (“Hey gorgeous” is how he opens a Skype conversation with someone he’s only just met); comic Kanan Gill, debuting as Noor’s super-nice friend, Saad, is very watchable, but could have done with a little more definition from the writers.

The film’s social commentary is as well-intentioned as it is heavy-handed. Despite Smita Tambe’s searching performance as Noor’s hired help, there’s a sense that she exists in the film so that her employer can find her purpose in life (there’s a bordering-on-insensitive moment involving a Facebook request). It’s difficult to take Noor’s truth-seeking avatar—interrupted as it is by a holiday in London—too seriously. Her near-constant state of discontentment is, however, noteworthy. As a well-off youngster who’s vaguely dissatisfied with her life, she might be grouped with Wake Up Sid’s Siddharth, Tamasha’s Ved and Dear Zindagi’s Kaira. This may be why the latter stages of Noor are so difficult to believe. Can the mildly disaffected ever lead the revolution?

This review appeared in Mint.