Friday, October 20, 2017

Lipstick Under My Burkha: Review

About halfway through Alankrita Shrivastava’s Lipstick Under My Burkha comes a scene that’s as casually beautiful as anything Hindi cinema has offered this year. Fifty-five-year-old Usha (Ratna Pathak Shah) has come to mall to buy a swimsuit—a terrifying leap outside the safety of her normal existence. But there’s another first that must be negotiated before that: the escalator. As she stares at it with a look of dread, a series of little girls, each holding the next one’s hand, step on to the moving stairs. The last one takes Usha’s hand and she’s borne up, recovering sufficiently to allow herself a shy smile.

You could read all sorts of things into this moment, or nothing at all. This makes it a rarity in Lipstick, a film that’s sure about what it’s saying, and which says it clearly and loudly at every turn. Female desire, in all its forms, is the fulcrum around which the film’s four stories turn: college-goer Rehana (Plabita Borthakur) wants to wear jeans and sing Zeppelin and jam with drummer Dhruv (Shashank Arora); Leela (Aahana Kumra) is engaged to a man she barely knows and in heated love with another; Shireen (Konkona Sensharma) is trying to get her brutish husband to be a little nicer to her; and Usha is balancing being the unofficial matriarch to the apartment complex in which all these characters live with lusting after a much younger man and reading steamy paperbacks.

The downside to making a film with intersecting but nonetheless separate storylines is that it’s difficult not to compare them to each other, to re-edit one’s own film even as the one in front of you unfolds. Though each of the stories represents a markedly different situation, the Rehana and Shireen strands are restrictive in ways that the other two aren’t. In showing how these two characters must deal with the inflexibility of society, Shrivastava (who’s also the screenwriter) opts for an inflexibility of characterization that stifles the stories. In both cases the oppressors—nightmare conservative parents in Rehana’s case, a despicable husband for Shireen —are so unvaryingly unpleasant and narrow-minded that there’s a feeling of watching a game whose outcome is pre-decided.

The other two stories, however, are wonderfully constructed and executed. Leela’s moral quandary is complicated by the fact that both her options are flawed but not without merit: boyfriend Arshad (Vikrant Massey) is tempestuous and clearly unreliable, yet has undeniable charm; fiancĂ©e Manoj (Vaibbhav Tatwawdi) is thoughtful and sweet but also hopelessly square (when he shows Leela his home, there’s a lovely shot of a group of senior citizens silently watching TV, a vision of her future which sends her right back into Arshad’s arms). Leela herself is a fascinating character, prone to making potentially life-altering decisions on the spur of the moment. This results in one of the film’s most whistle-worthy scenes, when, after vacillating between passion and stability, she goes with stability and supplies the passion herself.

All the protagonists in Lipstick place themselves in varying degrees of risk, but none has quite as much to lose as Usha. A widow, a hard-nosed businesswoman and the neighbourhood bua-ji, she can’t help but read soft-core romance novels at night. When she comes across a doltish swim instructor (Jagat Singh Solanki), she buys a bathing costume and starts taking classes with him. Soon, she’s calling him anonymously at night for phone sex. It’s unlikely this particular scenario—a woman in her mid-50s lusting after a young stud—has ever been attempted in this fashion in Hindi cinema. And it might have seemed too cruel or silly here had it not been for Ratna Pathak Shah. In her quiet way, Pathak has become one of the most reliable character actors in India today. Her Usha—hesitant yet impelled by desire—is a baring of the soul that’s as fearless as it is heart-breaking. It also makes for a great contrast with the brassiness of Kumra, who supplies the film’s other standout performance.

Lipstick isn’t much for obscuring its message; the audience is kept abreast of the action at nearly every step. Purely filmic solutions—like the sound of a drill or a train to convey mental agitation—are few, and sometimes the dialogue is so direct it grates (Shireen’s boss at the department store asks her: “Do you only intend to keep having children or do you want to be a sales trainer?”). The setting, Bhopal, is shorn of local colour until it could be any middle-class neighbourhood in any first- or second-tier Indian city. Perhaps this is deliberate—using a place that isn’t Delhi, Mumbai or Kolkata as a sort of representative space free of audience associations. Still, it feels like a missed opportunity. Lipstick is at its best when it’s being specific. Early in the film, it’s hinted that Leela’s mother has an unusual profession. I won’t spoil the revelation, but it’s the sort of detail that adds virtually nothing to the plot but nevertheless remains lodged in one’s mind.

This review appeared in Mint.

World War II, as it happened

Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master (2012) doesn’t have combat scenes but it is in many ways a war film. It begins with a US soldier, Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), returning home from World War II. In a veterans’ hospital, a doctor asks him about headaches and a crying spell. Freddie dismisses this at first, but then admits these might have been brought on by “nostalgia”. It’s a strange word to encounter in this context, unless you’re aware that the medical term for various PTSD symptoms was, for centuries, nostalgia.

These scenes in The Master were inspired by a 1946 documentary called Let There Be Light. It was directed by John Huston, one of five American film-makers tapped by the US government to help with the war effort at the start of the 1940s. Just how illustrious a bunch this was becomes clear when you consider that Huston, director of The Maltese Falcon, was the least well-known of the five. John Ford was already considered the greatest director of Westerns ever. George Stevens was the first to pair Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, in Woman Of The Year. William Wyler had directed Dodsworth; Frank Capra had won Oscars for It Happened One Night and Mr Smith Goes To Washington.

How these five directors went about creating Allied propaganda is told in the three-part documentary Five Came Back. The series, based on a 2015 book of the same name by Mark Harris (who has also written the script for the show), is available on Netflix, as are all the films made by the five. Taken together, they offer fascinating insight into an initiative that used everything from scratchy newsreels to Hollywood spectacle to inspire the troops and reassure the public.

No doubt anticipating an audience that wouldn’t know Stagecoach from Jezebel, the show assembles five recent directors to talk about the original quintet. And so we get the dizzyingly starry line-up of Steven Spielberg on Wyler, Francis Ford Coppola on Huston, Guillermo Del Toro on Capra, Paul Greengrass on Ford and Lawrence Kasdan on Stevens (Meryl Streep does the narration). Even if you’re somewhat familiar with Allied wartime films, the details revealed are fascinating: how, for instance, Ford smuggled out his film in tobacco cans so that he could cut it the way he wanted instead of the army tampering with his vision, or how Wyler went deaf in one ear filming Thunderbolt.

Laurent Bouzereau directs the three 50-minute episodes in roughly chronological fashion, switching between the different film-makers’ stories. He does an efficient job, though it must be said that Five Came Back lacks the depth and ambition of recent extended documentaries. It’s a pity this material wasn’t developed beyond two-and-a-half-hours: we barely scratch the surface of what the Axis powers were doing in their propaganda. The only discussion of American propaganda through cartoons is Private Snafu; it would have been fascinating to learn more about the wealth of wartime—often racist—animation that came out of the US.

Watching Five Came Back, it’s difficult not to think of later films that carry their markings. In the second episode, it’s revealed that the lifelike combat scenes in The Battle Of San Pietro were faked by Huston. Was Clint Eastwood aware of this when he made Flags Of Our Fathers, a section of which is about the falsification of the Iwo Jima flag-raising photograph? Coppola mentions Huston’s ingenuity in getting his soldiers to look directly at the camera—something no “actor” would do; a little later, we’re shown a clip from Apocalypse Now, with Coppola playing a director and shouting, “Don’t look in the camera”. When Spielberg discusses a scene in Wyler’s Memphis Belle in which a pilot ejects out of a B-52, the image that jumps forth is that of Frank Powers trying to escape his plane in Bridge Of Spies.

Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is in theatres this weekend, and it should be fascinating to see what this trickiest of modern directors does with the most straightforward of genres. Ever since All Quiet On The Western Front, ambitious directors of all stripes—from Terrence Malick to Kathryn Bigelow—have looked to shape, energize and subvert the combat narrative. Five Came Back takes us back to the beginning, when a small group of directors created the DNA of the modern combat film.

This piece appeared in Mint Lounge.

Jagga Jasoos: Review

There’s a moment, some 10 minutes into Jagga Jasoos, which will probably represent a way into the film for some, and a departure point for others. Anurag Basu’s film, his first after 2012’s Barfi!, begins with a botched arms drop in Purulia, West Bengal, in 1995. We see the incident first, then the reports on TV, during which something strange happens. As Pritam’s music swells in the background, newscasters and studio guests start to sing their lines instead of speaking them.

If viewers laugh at this spot of invention, and not with it, the film could be in trouble. In this moment Basu is signalling two things to his audience: that Jagga Jasoos will be fairy-tale whimsical, and that it’s a wall-to-wall musical. The first isn’t too much of an issue: when you have 34-year-old Ranbir Kapoor playing a schoolkid and Katrina Kaif as a successful investigative journalist, what’s a little more suspension of disbelief? The second barrier could prove trickier. Dialogue and music intruding on each other’s space is the Hollywood conception of a musical. We’re used to song and dance in our films, but only as self-contained packages. We may move like some combination of James Brown and Fred Astaire, but we don’t sing dialogue.

In Basu’s film, almost everything is sung. Jagga (Kapoor), an orphan who lives in a hospital in Ukhrul, Manipur, has a debilitating stutter. At the suggestion of a kindly gent (the terrific Saswata Chatterjee)—whom we saw in the opening arms drop—he attempts to sing his thoughts, and finds he can do so without faltering. This is an idea that’s been explored in films from Rocket Science to The King’s Speech, though I haven’t seen it used as all-consumingly as it is here. Nearly all of Jagga’s spoken lines from this point on are rapped or sung; more often than not, those replying to him end up singing too.

Though the musical conceit is new, the palette is familiar. The surfeit of charm, the piling up of eccentric detail, the manicured beauty of every frame—all of this seems like a continuation of the Barfi! aesthetic developed by Basu, cinematographer Ravi Varman, editors Akiv Ali and Ajay Sharma, and designers Rajat and Parijat Poddar. Not that outside influences aren’t easy to spot. “Wes Anderson-like” as shorthand for studied whimsy has long passed the point of overuse, but the parallels between Jagga—a gifted schoolboy who’s serious like a grownup—and Rushmore’s Max are impossible to ignore. There’s the obvious reference to Tintin in Jagga’s talent for detection, and in the tuft of hair sticking out the side of his head. There’s also a dash of Indiana Jones in the film’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along plot, which is ostensibly about Jagga and his journalist friend, Shruti (Kaif), investigating an international arms cartel.

Most Hindi films feed us our dramatic vegetables with the tacit understanding that dessert is soon to follow. Jagga Jasoos, though, has no use for a balanced diet: it’s all dessert, all the time. Like a less frenetic Michel Gondry film, the screen is constantly coming alive with little bits of invention. Many of these details serve no dramatic purpose—you can almost picture Basu saying, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we had a Russian dance troupe swaying to "Kalinka" on a train moving through the African countryside?” and his producers mopping their foreheads. This is a film with giraffes, leopards, elephants and ostriches; a clock-tower scene out of Vertigo; a biplane (because biplanes are cool); a fictional region in Africa called Shundi, which is likely a reference to the magical kingdom in Satyajit Ray’s Goopy Gyne Baagha Byne.

Is everything weaved together successful? Not quite. The political references are largely toothless and perfunctory, except for one song about farmer suicides and people dying in riots, which is so extreme a mismatch with the material that it took my breath away. The singing stratagem occasionally gets in its own way, with dramatic scenes rendered silly by characters breaking into song. There’s also the baffling decision to cast, opposite Bollywood’s nimblest male star, the slow-reacting, risk-averse Kaif. Still, when it’s firing, Jagga Jasoos taps into the sort of rhythm that propels scenes from within—whether it’s a simple gag, like a police officer trying to figure out which of his six phones is ringing, or a setpiece, as when Jagga and Shruti, running from a gunman, find themselves on stage and improvise a little dance. Kishore Kumar did something similar in the Woh Ek Nigah Kya Mili sequence in 1962’s Half Ticket. It’s nice to know that, these many years later, Hindi cinema hasn’t lost the ability to be sublimely ridiculous when it wants.

This review appeared in Mint.

Mom: Review

In its response to the issue of women’s safety, Indian cinema lately has been a bit of superego and a whole bunch of id. Pink was a critical breakdown of the problem, and was rare for holding out the promise of justice actually being served. Few other films have been that optimistic. In the past few weeks, I’ve seen no less than three features—the latest being Ravi Udyawar’s Mom—in which a lone woman is forced into a car by a group of men. None of these films present any response to injustice except for nihilism and revenge. Playing on the public’s deep-rooted mistrust of the law and order and justice system in this country, particularly when it comes to women’s safety, and a media climate that’s more strident by the day, our films are placing a pretend gun in our hands and saying, if you had the chance, would you?

Film has always been an outlet for viewers to be more potent than they are in real life, where they’re bound by laws and systems. Mom devotes almost half its running time to show how ineffective it believes these systems are, before it allows its titular character to start bypassing them (the ease with which she does so is another indictment of their ineffectiveness). Unlike Pink, which showed the failure of the system but ultimately voted for its relevance, Mom goes the way of Maatr, a revenge thriller with a shared theme from earlier this year.

The mom in Udyawar’s film is actually “ma’am”—at least that’s what Arya insists on calling her step-mother, and her teacher at school, Devki (Sridevi). In the opening scene, Arya is sent a lewd message by a classmate. Devki takes the phone from the offending student, Mohit, and calmly drops it from the window. Though Arya is as embarrassed as Mohit, this incident is one of the triggers for the film’s horrific central event. In a series of distressingly well-choreographed scenes, Arya is abducted by Mohit, his cousin and two others from a party, and bundled into a car. She’s raped, beaten and left in a ditch.

It’s only when Arya’s assailants are identified, arrested and, after a fast-tracked trial, declared innocent that Mom reveals its true face. What was till now a wrenching family drama morphs into a revenge thriller, with Devki tracking down the four men and finding creative ways to make them suffer. She’s helped in this by a private detective named Dayashankar, played by a semi-unrecognizable Nawazuddin Siddiqui, sporting a high hairline and prominent front teeth. The pivot to genre film is signalled via an exchange between the two just before intermission. “God isn’t everywhere,” Devki tells the Bholenath-invoking private eye. “That’s why he made mothers,” Dayashankar replies.

Like Kahaani’s Vidya, a modern-day Durga, Devki is both mother and avenging god. This is made clear not only through choice of character name—Devaki is the mother of Krishna, and therefore not far from a god herself—but also when Dayashankar and her meet in a gallery in front of an abstract painting of a particularly grisly episode from the Mahabharata. Though Dayashankar can’t see it, Devki knows exactly what it is: Draupadi bathing her hair in the blood of Dushasana, her violator. Mythology doesn’t get much pulpier, or provide a better basis for the revenge narrative.

If you believe that rapists should be castrated or given the death penalty—not necessarily by the state—you’re the choir Mom is preaching to. If you aren’t, you’ll have a lot to wrestle with, not least the law’s approval of Devki’s actions. Either way, this is a taut thriller, with Udyawar showing a flair with for economical unbroken shots (the hard-edged cinematography is by Anay Goswamy). Sridevi delivers an appropriately strained performance, and Sajal Ali is harrowing as Arya. Akshaye Khanna is memorably (though probably not intentionally) weird as a police inspector with a faraway look on his face, while Siddiqui starts off as comic relief before creating, as only he can, a startlingly vivid character in just a handful of scenes.

Mom is a strange brew: audience-appeasing thriller, relationship drama and social commentary all rolled into one. To Udyawar’s credit, he manages to make it look cohesive, even as he struggles to contend with the moral quagmire of revenge and opts instead for the escape of pulp.

This review appeared in Mint.