Saturday, September 22, 2018

Manto: Review

Like Rabindranath Tagore and Satyajit Ray, those other two giants of 20th century arts, Saadat Hasan Manto has become a 21st century cottage industry. Not a year goes by without a new Manto translation, story collection, film adaptation or stage production. And like Subhas Chandra Bose, like Bhagat Singh, Manto has come to assume an even greater significance in death than he did in life. He’s become a signifier of a certain type of worldview. To be a Manto adherent is to tacitly declare oneself the possessor of a sensibility both broadminded and unsparing.

The promotions surrounding Nandita Das’ film have fed both the cottage industry and the legend of Manto as liberal icon. The first look we got of Nawazuddin Siddiqui in character as Manto was a short film made by Das last year, In Defence of Freedom, in which the writer holds forth on obscenity and censorship. More recently, Siddiqui has appeared as Manto in a rap video ("Mantoiyat") with Raftaar – part of the original soundtrack, though it doesn’t play in the film – and a spoken word video ("Mere Kavi Dost") with poet Ramneek Singh. Publishing house Speaking Tiger, no doubt looking to make the most of Manto season, released a lively set of remembrances, Manto-Saheb: Friends and Enemies on the Great Maverick, last month.

Much of the conversation leading up to the film’s release has revolved around how relevant Manto is to these times – something that might have been said with equal conviction anytime in the last 60 years. Though there’s enough here for anyone who might want to draw parallels with present-day intolerance, and though the film’s ultimately a heroic portrait, it does at least try and consider the contradictions and flaws of this complex figure. We begin inside a Manto story, about an underage sex worker who spends the day with two wealthy clients. As it concludes, we see that its last lines are being read by Safia (Rasika Dugal), whose reaction is being monitored by her husband, Manto.

Through the film, we’ll see famous Manto stories being acted out. However, in some of the later dramatizations, writer-director Das makes a crucial adjustment. In one scene, Manto is shown walking down a street in Lahore, having moved there in 1948 from Mumbai. It’s a ghost town, full of refugees and survivors of Partition in various states of disrepair. He sees a man asking if anyone’s seen his daughter Sakina. We follow the stranger as he reaches her bedside in a makeshift hospital. At some point, depending on your familiarity with Manto, you’ll realise you’re watching his haunting short story “Khol Do”.

By removing the distance between Manto’s life and his work in this fashion, Das hints at how hopelessly interdependent the two were. Earlier in the film, Manto’s close friend, actor Shyam Chadha (Tahir Raj Bhasin), takes him to see a relative, who relates a harrowing story of violence. On the way back in the train, Manto starts weaving what they’ve heard into a story. Shyam protests, arguing that these are real people, not fodder for some magazine story. It’s easy for you to take someone’s grief and turn it into fiction, he alleges. “It’s not easy,” Manto says quietly. In this moment, it’s suggested that what Manto lacked wasn’t empathy but the tact to hide his unceasing search for subjects in the everyday.

Manto’s post-Partition career in Pakistan is well-chronicled, which is perhaps why the Bombay-set portions of the film are the most intriguing. We see him suffer the mangling of his words by the film industry and argue with Ismat Chughtai, Krishan Chander and other writers and poets over cups of tea in an Irani cafe. In one scene, he’s travelling in a car with film star Ashok Kumar. Manto is tense; Partition has been announced and, despite Kumar’s amusement, he dons a skullcap. The vehicle is stopped by a group of Muslim men, who recognise the actor and are delighted. It’s a revealing (and true) incident – Manto, with one foot in reality and the other in the world of the arts, could sense the danger in situations like these, something his more famous friend just couldn’t fathom.

Unlike other recent period films, Manto is mounted with taste and care. Rita Ghosh’s production design goes a long way toward creating a convincing Lahore (shot in Vaso, Gujarat) and Bombay of the 1940s and ‘50s. Kartik Vijay works wonders with natural light and muted shades. Sneha Khanwalkar’s “Nagri Nagri”, in its initial moments, not only sounds like it could have been recorded in the 1940s, but also apes the melody of “Tu Mera Chand Main Teri Chandni”, a song from the 1949 film Dillagi. This was an actual film starring Shyam – he’s shown taking an unsuccessful crack at the tune in one scene before Naushad tells him to go home. Years later, in Lahore, as Manto seemingly hallucinates and insists he can hear Shyam singing, “Nagri Nagri” plays on the soundtrack.

The flipside of all this control is that Manto feels strangely programmatic, moving a little too cleanly from one historical event to the other. As Manto and Ismat banter in a bookstore, a religious riot suddenly breaks out; the next scene is Manto and Safia looking from their window as the city celebrates independence. A couple of scenes later, Partition is announced; soon after, Manto leaves by ship for Lahore. Then it’s 1948, and the first scene in Lahore is Manto being told that Gandhi is dead. None of this is unimportant material, but there’s the feeling of events being ticked off a long list.

Siddiqui is typically charismatic, and although no other character apart from Manto is developed to any meaningful extent, there are several witty cameos, especially Rajshri Deshpande as Ismat Chughtai and Bhanu Uday as Ashok Kumar. Dugal does a fine job too, but Safia is never allowed much of a personality beyond being an encourager of her husband and an absorber of his complaints. Despite the alcoholism and the vanity and the neglect, this is an admiring portrait of an artist who threw himself into battles that are still being fought today. The irony of someone like Manto, destroyer of sacred cows, being held up as some sort of ideal would not have been lost on the man himself.

This review appeared in Mint.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Manmarziyaan: Review

Manmarziyaan is the least violent Anurag Kashyap film imaginable. No one gets their head bashed in, no one shoots their arch-rival dozens of times; even hockey sticks are wielded more as a threat than as an actual weapon. Yet, in a step forward for the director, Manmarziyaan explores other kinds of violence, like the sort of verbal and emotional wounds dealt to each other by young people in love. It also looks at the healing power of forgiveness—again, not what one might think of as a Kashyap theme.

For a director whose narratives are propelled more by dramatic incident than by character psychology, Manmarziyaan represents a bit of an experiment. Though the film is perpetually busy over its 150-odd minutes, there’s little forward movement, and a lot of sideways shuffling. Halfway through, you might wonder if anything has “happened”, the way we so often do with films and so seldom with life. This is a rare film built entirely on indecision, on characters second-guessing themselves, spinning their wheels.

In funky, dusty, colourful Amritsar, Rumi (Taapsee Pannu) and Vicky (Vicky Kaushal) are entwined in fyaar (carnal love) and, possibly, pyaar (the deeper stuff). After they’re discovered sneaking around by her family, she’s told it’s time to select a husband and settle down. But Rumi, ex-hockey player and perpetual hothead, doesn’t like being ordered to do anything, and she manages to brazen her way to a compromise: Vicky will turn up the next day with his family to ask for her hand in marriage. If he doesn’t, she’ll marry the first suitable boy they choose.

Of course, Vicky doesn’t turn up. Rumi sticks to her word, offering few protests as her family arranges her marriage to Robbie (Abhishek Bachchan), a banker recently returned from England. But she can’t shake Vicky any more than he can shake her. There’s an incendiary scene with the two of them in a jeep by the highway, Rumi letting the cocksure DJ absolutely have it over his lack of finances, prospects and future plans. Vicky looks scared (as he should – Pannu works herself up into a righteous fury) but eventually retaliates, reminding her it wasn’t his idea to run away. On and on it goes, until Rumi and Robbie are married.

Manmarziyaan reminded me of Millennium Mambo, Hou Hsiao-hsien’s 2001 Taiwanese film about a wilful girl with a complicated love life. Both films have dazzling surfaces; Kashyap, working with screenwriter Kanika Dhillon, composer Amit Trivedi and cinematographer Sylvester Fonseca, loses himself in the food and graffiti and youth slang of Amritsar. Like the magnificent kulchas of that city, it’s sometimes a bit overstuffed. The dancing twins who show up in the musical sequences feel gimmicky after the first few times, and the nature documentary about the simian mating season that plays on TV during the couple’s first night would be a smart gag in a dumber movie.

It’s through Robbie, a contender for the nicest nice-guy in Hindi film history, that Manmarziyaan tries to feel its way toward an emotional breakthrough. Even when Rumi starts to warm to him (it takes a drunk scene that’s a step beyond Bachchan), Robbie is gently insistent that she investigate her feelings. “I’m happy in this relationship,” she argues. “Why are we discussing this?” “Because discussion is a good thing,” he replies – perhaps the most sensible thing said in a Hindi film this year.

It all leads to a remarkable final scene. No possibly fatal punch, no unveiling of a decomposed body, no bullet-riddled corpse – just an extended walk-and-talk. In a film with near-constant music, the soundtrack only registers ambient noise. Some issues are resolved, others wisely left alone. It’s so beautifully written and acted that when the music swells briefly at the end and there’s a slo-mo shot, it feels like a betrayal of the mood.

Mukkabaaz, which released earlier this year, was a hard film with a soft centre. The unexpected tenderness of the central romance in Kashyap’s boxing drama is carried forward to Manmarziyaan. Despite the barbs thrown at Vicky, we’re never asked to see him as a jerk, and there’s never any doubt about the depth of his feelings for Rumi (or hers for him; at one point, she tells him how grateful she is that he was her first love). And despite all the hurt, sweetness suffuses the film, from the gentleness of Robbie’s drinking scenes with his dad to the rough poetry of Shellee’s lyrics (lovers necking becomes “chonch ladiyan” – beaks meeting).

Hindi cinema has struggled to depict app-age romantic relationships, with Befikre (2016) a particularly glaring example of an older director trying to guess what kids are like today. By showing how already complicated systems of young love in India are both simplified and made more complex by technology, Manmarziyan feels closer to messy reality. The central couple hook up on Tinder and delete the app from each other’s phone; the third wheel plays a waiting game on Facebook. And a song urges: “Zamana hai badla/ mohabbat bhi badli/ ghise pite version nu/ maaro update” – times have changed/ love’s changed too/ antiquated versions/ need to be updated.

The crash on film

In Wall Street (1987), Michael Douglas, playing corporate raider Gordon Gekko, utters one of the most famous lines in Hollywood history: “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good.” Though Oliver Stone’s film was a critique of Wall Street and its moral bankruptcy, a new generation of traders and bankers adopted “Greed is good” as an unironic motto. More than 30 years later—and a decade after one of the worst crises in American financial history—American cinema is still teeming with Gekkos.

Inside Job is the ideal starting point for anyone looking to understand how a greed-fuelled, out-of-control market collapsed on itself in September 2008. Charles Ferguson’s film released in 2010, two years after the markets imploded. The following year, it won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. Ferguson structures the film in five chapters, taking viewers from deregulation in the 1980s to the introduction of derivatives and subprime lending and, eventually, the crash and its aftermath.

Research for the film started in 2008, and Ferguson learnt before it became common knowledge that investment banks had sold securities that they knew were bad, and would often design them to fail so they could bet against them later. “If somebody had told me that in the fall of 2008, that this had gone on on a huge scale, tens of billions of dollars, I would have said no, that’s just too extreme,” he told NPR. “People don’t do that. And if you do do it, you would go to jail. They did do it, and nobody’s gone to jail.”

Many of the terms and individuals discussed in Inside Job show up in some form or the other in The Big Short. It’s a little surprising that the director of Anchorman: The Legend Of Ron Burgundy and The Other Guys is also responsible for the best fiction film on the 2008 crash. Yet, perhaps it needed someone like Adam McKay, maker of boisterous, institution-puncturing comedies, to fully expose the self-serving absurdity of the financial system in the late 2000s. The film, based on Michael Lewis’ book The Big Short: Inside The Doomsday Machine, is a searing look at the crisis from several interlinked points of view: bankers, traders, hedge fund managers—everyone who participated, with or without moral compunction, in the shorting of the system.

Like McKay’s other films, the dialogue flies thick and fast, and because a lot of it is business-speak like “tranches” and “CDOs” and “swaps”, he comes up with various kinds of sugar to help the jargon go down. This includes a first-rate cast (just for starters: Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling, Steve Carrell, Brad Pitt), and cameos from Margot Robbie, Selena Gomez and Anthony Bourdain, all explaining complex financial concepts. It’s a blistering piece of cinema: sure-footed, angry and hilarious.

One of the first fiction films on the 2008 crisis was a slow-burn look at the institution primarily responsible for causing it—big banking. J.C. Chandor’s Margin Call (2011) is about a major (fictional) New York investment bank that finds out the mortgage-backed securities in its portfolio are going to be practically worthless overnight. Faced with the decision to go under, they decide to dump them, selling to unsuspecting consumers—mirroring the actions of actual Wall Street banks.

Margin Call recalls the New Hollywood Cinema of the 1970s, in particular films like All The President’s Men and The Conversation, which painted an unflattering picture of public institutions and the government. Shot like a neo-noir, the film manages to damn the banking system as a whole without losing sympathy for the characters lower in the pecking order. Like The Big Short, this film too has a wonderful ensemble, with Zachary Quinto, Paul Bettany, Kevin Spacey and Stanley Tucci, and a brilliant turn by Jeremy Irons as the head of the bank, John Tuld, whose name rhymes with that of Lehman Brothers’ final chairman, Richard Fuld.

Considering how central the housing market was to the collapse, it’s not surprising that there have been fiction and non-fiction features focused on this aspect alone. The Queen Of Versailles is a 2012 documentary by Lauren Greenfield about David Siegel, who made a fortune through timeshare properties, and his wife Jackie, a former model. When we first meet them in the film, they’re some way into constructing the largest house in the US, modelled on the palace of Versailles in France. Then, September 2008 strikes, and the market collapses. As David’s business takes a hit and they’re forced to consider selling the house, the film becomes a warped mirror image of the problems being faced—on a much smaller but more life-changing scale—by their countrymen.

In Ramin Bahrani’s 99 Homes, we get a more sobering look at what happened to many home-owners during and after the crash. Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield), an unemployed construction worker, is evicted from his foreclosed house along with his son and mother by the police, who defer to a real estate agent known as Rick Carver (Michael Shannon). Desperate for money, Nash goes to work for Carver, helping him put pressure on other home-owners and evict them from their homes.

Though Nash is the focus of the film, Carver is as fascinating a villain as the Wall Street types in The Big Short and Margin Call. Shannon is in typically ruthless form, throwing a baleful gaze on the suffering around him. One particular speech he gives Nash sums up the state of the country at that moment in time. “America doesn’t bail out the losers,” he says. “America was built by bailing out winners. By rigging a nation—of the winners, by the winners, for the winners.”

This piece appeared in Mint Lounge.

Laila Majnu: Review

Most films live or die by their deployment of good sense and good taste. These are the two parameters most often used to judge the worth of a film, and the highest-rated directors are usually masters at one or the other. But there’s a third, altogether riskier, attribute which trumps both: depth of feeling. The only catch is, you have to go for broke or it won’t work.

Laila Majnu has little sense, some good taste and enough feeling to flood a valley. On the face of it, it’s a standard ‘girl meets boy, their families disapprove, boy loses the plot’ story. But director Sajid Ali lulls viewers with Kashmiri meadows and lakes and a heady soundtrack and then throws the emotional kitchen sink at them. The film’s often in danger of getting away from him – yet it just about works.

After they meet under the weirdest possible circumstances, Laila (Tripti Dimri) and Qais (Avinash Tiwari) – pampered children of feuding Kashmiri families – find themselves drawn to each other. You could write the first half of the film yourself: two households, both alike in dignity, ancient grudge breaks to new mutiny, etc. Yet – and one only realises this later – Ali is always pointing to another problem. It seems innocuous in the beginning when Laila is told that Qais is ‘paagal’. Which smitten lover doesn’t act a little crazy? But the film doesn’t let up with the warning, and it eventually becomes clear why.

Ali, making his feature debut, comes up with something both lush and spare. There are barely any subplots, and the narrative is so lean you can see its bones. But the overall mood is richly melodramatic, Niladri Kumar and Joi Barua’s music is intoxicating, and characters can’t help lapsing into poetry (even a question as prosaic as “You did drugs?” is answered with “Beintehaa”). After the interval, matters build to a fever pitch – in one scene, Qais literally swoons – and stay that way for the rest of the running time.

Sumit Kaul, one of the Salmaans in Haider, gets to play both villain and comic relief, and is wonderfully over-the-top. Dimri spends the first half-hour regarding the camera coquettishly, and though she eases up as the film progresses, most of the pathos is generated by Tiwari, with his hurt eyes and gaunt frame. Even as Qais loses his grip on reality and the film threatens to spin off its axis, he’s the film’s unwavering emotional centre.

Hindi cinema has no shortage of self-pitying heroes, but Qais is something different. After the one obligatory public blow-up, he doesn’t take to drink or set about trying to make his lover feel terrible. Instead, all his hurt is directed inward. Love makes him brittle, then cracks him open.

This review appeared in Mint.

Parlez-vous Bollywood?

Outside of film festivals, you usually don’t see Indians getting worked up over subtitles. Yet, a month and a half ago, this is exactly what happened. It started with a police complaint, and later, a court case, over a scene from the Netflix original series Sacred Games, in which former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi is described as fattu. This became “pussy” in the English subtitle, replaced later by the milder “wimp” in some versions.

The series threw up another subtitling conundrum, one that extended beyond the original Hindi phrasing and its English translation. In the first episode, there’s a restaurant signboard which reads “Satyanarayan Shukla Hindu Hotel Shudh Shakahari”. The English translation for this was “Upper-caste Hindu Hotel – Pure Vegetarian”—a possible attempt to provide cultural context for foreign audiences (Indians would guess that it’s upper caste from the proprietor’s name and the “pure vegetarian” specification).

François-Xavier Durandy, a French subtitler of Hindi films, supplied a fascinating addendum, tweeting screenshots of the scene with different European language subtitles. The confusion may have begun with the word “hotel”, retained in the English subtitle. The Italian subtitle reads “Hotel di lusso”—luxury hotel. Over Skype from Normandy, France, Durandy explains that this was probably a result of “bridge translation”—not using the original language as a source (“upper-caste” was likely interpreted as “upper-class”, which then became “luxury”).

Bridge translation, in Durandy’s eyes, is a cardinal, if common, sin. He gives another example, of an Indian short film which was shown at a major film festival. Because of a bridge translation, he says, aap became the informal tu in French and not the formal pronoun vous, thus confusing viewers who thought, incorrectly, that the characters were mother and daughter (the actual relationship was of employer and house help). “They see what they think is the daughter sleeping in the kitchen,” Durandy says, “and they start assuming things.”

I visited Durandy last year at his home in Normandy, complete with goats, sheep, geese, a cat, and a peahen and peacock named Laxmi and Narayan. We were chatting after dinner, and the conversation leaned towards films and his work. He mentioned that he was working on a small, tricky project he’d picked up for fun: a Hindi commercial for Indian retail store Big Bazaar. In this minute-long ad celebrating Ramzan, a doctor about to break her fast is interrupted by an urgent case; later, the patient’s mother invites her to a modest iftar with them in the hospital. Durandy was worried that French audiences wouldn’t pick up that the doctor is Muslim, and the patient’s family, Sikh. “Ads are incredibly challenging,” he says. “It’s almost impossible to pack in all the information.”

Invisible storytellers
Sonja Majumder, who subtitles Hindi films in German, agrees with a colleague who compared subtitling to the translation of poetry, because it involves working within confines. “If you translate a book,” she says over Skype from Hamburg, “the German book can be longer than the English one. But a film scene is only that long.”

Majumder says her job is to come up with subtitles you can read without losing sight of what is happening on screen. German words are usually longer than Hindi ones, so she often has to shorten what’s being said. This has to be done, though, without losing information or the essential flavour of the scene. It’s important to be ruthless, she says, because otherwise you’ll end up with the most beautiful sentence, a perfect translation, but no one will be able to read it because it is too long.

Subtitlers must know how to execute, or at least work with, what is known as “spotting”. In its most basic sense, spotting is determining where a subtitle should start and where it should end in relation to the onscreen action. Durandy mentions two rules he follows. One is that a subtitle should never overlap with a cut. Another is that there shouldn’t be more than 15 characters per second—any more than that strains readability. Majumder echoes this, saying: “If you work against the editing of a film, it will be difficult to read the subs. We work with cuts, so we have to know a bit about filmic language, we have to have a sense of rhythm.”

Given that they come between you and the film, as Durandy puts it, good subtitlers try to remain as unobtrusive as possible. “The best subtitles are invisible,” Majumder says. “If at the end of the film, people think that they have not watched a film with subtitles, then you have done a good job.”

Sometimes, though, invisibility isn’t an option. Majumder remembers puzzling for days over the crucial translation of the titular character’s name in PK (2014). Because it derived from peekay (drunk), they had to find a German word that both rhymed with it and conveyed the same meaning. In the end, they used the German word for drunk and added peekay in parentheses after it. Majumder admits, “It’s not as elegant as the original, but there was no other way.”

Language, of course, can be a challenge. Majumder says she always has to work extra hard when translating lyricists who use difficult words, like Gulzar, or directors who set their films in a specific linguistic milieu, like Vishal Bhardwaj. Fujii Mika, who has been subtitling Hindi films in Japanese since 1999, cites Gangs Of Wasseypur as a demanding project because of its localized accents and slang. Sometimes just the volume of words can pose problems. Durandy says he finds masala films, with their rat-a-tat dialogue, tougher to negotiate than ones where the visual carries an equal or greater load. “The more that is left unsaid, the easier it is to translate. I think October would be a very easy film to subtitle. Or Trapped.”

Translating a culture
For those who create subtitles, translation is just part of the job. A good subtitler will also act as a guide to a culture. A line of dialogue may only convey part of what is happening on screen; the subtitler must figure out whether additional, unstated information needs to be supplied. This could range from a mangalsutra to a hand gesture to a local festival—all the non-verbal information that we wouldn’t give a second thought to, but which would likely confuse a viewer who is not Indian.

Durandy mentions a famous line from Masaan (which he dubbed in French), spoken by Vicky Kaushal: “Ab toh hum friend ho gaye hain, na (we have become friends now, isn’t it)?” Shaalu (Shweta Tripathi) replies with a barely audible “Hmm” and a couple of head tilts—two on the left, two on the right—that would be interpreted as “yes” by any Indian. But a French viewer, Durandy says, would come away wondering if she was undecided. So they added a spoken oui in a frame where her face isn’t visible, even though Shaalu doesn’t say anything definitive out aloud. The choice, he says, was to cheat a little instead of having viewers think “she’s not sure, maybe not that much into the boy, and then jump to all the wrong conclusions”.

Aleksandra Gonera works as a distribution manager and subtitler for Bollywood Europa, which distributes Hindi films in East Europe and Russia and provides dubbing and subtitling services in Polish, Czech, Russian, Hindi and English. Over Skype from Kraków, Poland, she says they sometimes come up against specifically Indian concepts—like jauhar in Padmaavat—which they either have to leave untranslated or find a comparable concept in Polish for. Curiously, when asked what else she finds difficult to explain to a viewer with scant knowledge of India, she mentions comedy. “With something like Golmaal or Sonu Ke Titu Ki Sweety, you have to know the culture very well to translate in a good way, otherwise it’s impossible.”

Between the lines
One of the constraints subtitlers must operate with is dealing with clients (distributors, film festivals, language service providers) who are in a hurry—which is almost always the case. “You get one week to 10 days to do the subtitles,” says Fujii. For Gonera, 10 days is a luxury—on occasion, she has had to turn over projects in two-three days.

All the subtitlers I spoke to said they would ideally want the film and the Hindi script before they start work—but this isn’t always possible. Sometimes they get the film and a script in English, sometimes just the Hindi script. Majumder says she and her partner, Gaby Gehlen, sometimes have to work without the film on hand. She recalls subtitling Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi without seeing the film, placing the German subtitles according to the time codes provided. “You have a film in your head but that may not be the same as the actual thing,” she says.

Gonera faces similar problems when she translates from an English script and only gets the movie later (or not at all). “In Hindi, you know if someone is speaking to a man or a woman because it’s tha and thi,” she says. “In English, there isn’t anything like that, but in Polish there is.” Working from an English script or dub sometimes leads to huge mistakes—a fellow subtitler, Gonera says, once got an English script of Rang De Basanti which translated the title as “come to Basanti”.

Durandy says he never works without getting the film and the Hindi script first. It might help that subtitling—while something he’s evangelical about, as even a cursory glance at his Twitter timeline will tell you—is a small part of his livelihood. He works in a voice-over department for TV, teaches translation to postgraduation students, and does “technical translation” for companies: not as exciting as the subtitling projects that take him to Cannes, but better at paying the bills. While he won’t divulge how much he makes on a typical project, Durandy says that the rate recommended by SNAC, the French union of authors, is €4.30 (around ₹350) per subtitle for a theatrical release. This rate, however, is rarely given in actual practice, he says.

It’s gratifying to know that subtitlers, too, worry about their work long after it’s published. Gonera says she would rather not see her films with an audience because she might find a mistake. Majumder feels the same way. “Seeing the translation up on the big screen is never fun,” she says. “You think of every little thing you would do differently. I know of colleagues who had their subtitles shown at important festivals, who got so stressed they started crying after the screening was over.” Durandy recalls watching Raman Raghav 2.0 at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival. In his first viewing, he thought he saw a spelling mistake and panicked; in the second, he missed the line. To his relief, when he saw it a third time, he realized the subtitle was fine.

The weight of words
Subtitling is steadily gaining in importance as global audiences discover Indian films and series through streaming services, and lucrative new markets such as China emerge. It is already vital for directors whose films play at Cannes, Berlin, Venice and other major festivals. Durandy suspects a couple of recent Indian films might have made more of a splash on the art-house circuit had their subtitles been better. Neeraj Ghaywan, director of Masaan, which premiered at Cannes in 2015, was asked in a Reddit AMA what he thought the most underrated part of the film-making process was. He replied: “Subtitling. People ignore it thinking it is just translation. It is actually as important as screenwriting...”

Over the phone, Ghaywan—who has himself subtitled films from Hindi to English—says it isn’t just Indian producers and distributors who tend to ignore subtitling, but Indian directors as well. “For a non-Indian viewer, it isn’t a subtitle—it is dialogue. But the industry treats it like a checkmark.” The way it’s supposed to work, he says, is that a film-maker sits with a subtitler and gives them context, the way he did with specifically Indian concepts like untouchability when Masaan was subtitled in French by Martine Armand. This, however, rarely happens. “I really think it should be treated with a little more dignity. You’re representing a film’s intelligence through subtitling.” He mentions a French company he worked with, Titra Films, which calls the process “adaptation”, not translation.

When Bong Joon-ho’s Okja released last year, Korean speakers pointed out a delightful joke embedded in the scene where, going by the English subtitle, a man tells a young girl (whose words he has already mistranslated): “Try learning English. It opens new doors!” In Korean, however, he has actually just told her his name. It’s a sly comment on Bong himself—an Asian director making his first Hollywood film—as well as on the essential trickiness of subtitles. As Ghaywan and Durandy both point out, unless you speak both languages, you’ll never know for certain if a film is being rendered accurately. Nevertheless, Okja is firmly on the side of subtitling. Later in the film, we see a fresh tattoo on the chastised interpreter’s arm. It reads: “Translations are sacred.”

Stree: Review

In the teaser for Stree, we were told that the events of the film are “based on a ridiculously true phenomenon”. In the film, however, the onscreen text has been changed to “a ridiculous phenomenon”. This is a smart swap, not only good for a laugh – the Hindi text says “vichitra ghatna”, an atypical or outlandish event – but also a clue to the essentially batty nature of this horror-comedy.

Amar Kaushik’s film is set in the small central Indian town of Chanderi, where men are being abducted in the dead of night by a creature known only as Stree (“woman” in Hindi). This is based on an actual legend, which exists across multiple states and languages, of a vengeful female spirit, who preys on male victims. The only solution – and here’s where the ridiculous comes in – is to paint ‘kal aana’ (come tomorrow) outside one’s home, an instruction which the spirit obeys, thus delaying her attack indefinitely.

Vicky (Rajkummar Rao), master tailor of Chanderi, is crept up on by a mysterious out-of-towner(Shraddha Kapoor) while on a smoke break. She wants a lehenga made double-quick; he protests,but melts when she says “please” and holds his hand. After a horny young man (as per horror tradition) is abducted from a house party, Vicky’s friends, Bittu (Aparshakti Khurrana) and Jana(Abhishek Banerjee), realise there’s something off about the girl he’s fallen for. No one besides Vicky has spoken to her, he doesn’t know her name, and he hasn’t seen her inside a temple (it’s festival time, and that sort of small town). When she gives him a weird shopping list – cat hair, lizard tail –they are convinced that Vicky has fallen in love with a witch.

As a horror film, Stree is rudimentary at best. It only has one scare tactic: something creeps up, the soundtrack becomes screechy, and it turns out to either be the ‘chudail’ or a false alarm. Luckily, Kaushik’s feel for comedy is surer. Sumit Arora contributes amusingly verbose dialogue, and Rao, Khurrana, Banerjee and Pankaj Tripathi (as a local scholar) have a great time chewing on words like ‘nimnlikhit’ and ‘mantramughd’. Tripathi in particular is a joy to watch, and the second half is invigorated by his increased presence.

The screenplay, by producers Raj and DK (who combined horror and comedy in their film Go Goa Gone to better effect), has a subversive endgame that’s spelt out very clearly. The idea of a town full of men afraid to go out at night is a potent one, and the film lays it on thick, with Tripathi’s character informing us that Stree – unlike male predators – doesn’t attack without consent (“Yes means yes” is thrown in for a laugh). I preferred the film’s smaller jabs at narrow-mindedness. At one point, Bittu and Jana raise eyebrows about Vicky’s new friend’s request for brandy. So she drinks, Vicky shrugs.“Bhabhi is cool”.

Late in the film, Vicky finds out his mother was a ‘tawaif’. After his initial shock, he decides it doesn’t matter – she’s his mother, after all – and then realises the whole town’s been keeping the secret from him to save his feelings. It’s an unexpected plot wrinkle, not only unnecessary but risky to introduce, but handled with warmth and good sense. Moments like these make Stree more than what it is: an amiable comedy with a couple of good ideas, too many jump scares and the most confusing ending I’ve seen in a long time.

This review appeared in Mint.

Happy Phirr Bhag Jayegi: Review

Thank heaven for Daman Singh Bagga. Without him and his sidekick, erstwhile Pakistani police officer Usman Afridi, Happy Phirr Bhag Jayegi would be this year’s Fukrey Returns: a tiresome sequel to a silly but enjoyable comedy sleeper hit. There’s little reason for Amritsari politician Bagga (Jimmy Sheirgill) to be in this China-set film, but there he is, doing what he does best: being a belligerent fish out of water, mangling the English language, always just missing the girl, and calling Afridi ‘Qailulle’ (a running gag from the first film).

There’s a scene in Happy Bhag Jayegi (2016) where Afridi (Piyush Mishra), in Indian Punjab for the first time, is told: “These people aren’t Chinese, they understand Urdu.” Now, Mudassar Aziz has returned with a sequel set in China, in which a character named Adnan Chow (Denzil Smith) actually does speak Urdu. Though the Happy, or Harpreet Kaur, of the first film (Diana Penty) shows up again, it’s more of an extended cameo. This time, there’s another Happy (Sonakshi Sinha), a horticulture professor who’s picked up on arrival in Shanghai by gangsters intending to abduct her namesake for reasons so tenuous that the film, wisely, mumbles them and quickly moves on.

Happy has her own wildly impractical reasons for being in China – in keeping with the first film, it involves a wedding skipped out on. She’s helped by Khushwant Singh Gill (Jassi Gill), an embassy official who takes a shine to her. Neither Sinha, with her perpetually furrowed brow, nor Gill is a particularly deft comic performer, which is why it’s a relief whenever Mishra and Sheirgill are part of the scene, the former with his arsenal of snorts and mutterings, the latter casually tossing out lines like “What an adult toy is called in Urdu is something even the inventor of Urdu won’t know.”

Though both the Happy films are outlandish and busy, the big difference seems to me their maker’s attitude towards the setting. The first film painted an affectionate portrait of Pakistan and Pakistanis, whereas Happy Phirr Bhag Jayegi has no respect, let alone love, for China. Not a single Chinese character in the film has any purpose other than to be yelled at, misunderstood or made fun of (pathetically, some of their names – Makiju, Fuh Qu – function as double entendre). There are Bruce Lee jokes, hakka noodle jokes, they-all-look-alike jokes. There’s even a reprisal of “Mera Naam Chin Chin Chu” – the gold standard for catchy ‘50s racism.

Aziz is writer and director here, as he was on the first film. He has a knack for one-liners (my favourite is Bagga asking Afridi not to sprinkle Urdu on his wounds) and if he can rein in his tendency to over-plot in the future, he might have a great screenplay in him. Happy Phirr Bhag Jayegi isn’t a total bust: there are intermittent laughs, and the Indian and Pakistani characters are treated with generosity. But to set a film in China and then spend 135 minutes sneering at the Chinese is, to put it plainly, opportunistic and childish.

This review appeared in Mint.

She was 20: how the girl in the picture surfaced

On 11 August, Savita Mehendale, a doctor in Faridabad, was drinking tea with her family. She had an issue of Mint in front of her, and her eye fell on a black and white photograph of a young, sari-clad woman with large eyes. Something about it needled her, so she read the accompanying article, which discussed, among other things, a 1967 documentary short called I Am 20. She watched the film on YouTube, and then, on a whim, called up her cousin in Nagpur, Yogesh Puranik, and asked if there was any chance his mother had appeared in a film 51 years ago.

Later that evening, I received an email from Yogesh, informing me that the unidentified girl in the picture was, in fact, his mother, Nayana Puranik. “Interestingly, Mom never mentioned to us, since last 51 years now, that she was part of Films Division’s documentary,” he wrote. I replied, asking if it might be possible to speak to his mother about her part in what is now regarded as an iconic Indian short film.

The next evening, Yogesh’s father, a retired air force wing commander, took the call and handed the phone to his wife. “When I saw the picture, very loudly I told my husband, it’s me only!” Nayana Puranik says. “I was so young then. After my graduation, I immediately got married. And somehow I got so involved in my married life and my children that it just slipped away from my mind that I was in this.”

Puranik’s involvement in I Am 20 happened by chance. One day, two men came to the house where she and her mother lived and said they were from Films Division. They said they were making a documentary on 20-year-olds born on or around 15 August talking about India, which was also turning 20 that year. Puranik, who was studying at the SNDT Women’s University, Mumbai, and would turn 20 on 20 August that year, had been selected as a possible candidate. Her mother was reluctant, so the men invited both of them to Film City in Goregaon. Puranik was asked a series of questions and told not to worry about how her answers came out, but to just speak her mind.

You can see Puranik in four short scenes. Unlike the other urban interviewees, she speaks in Hindi, not English. In one clip, she talks about how eve-teasing is on the rise (her mother can be seen pouring tea). In another, apparently asked if she’ll choose her own husband, she laughs and says, if he’s well-read and has a good nature and she has feelings for him, then why not? Another question—not surprising, given her camera-friendly manner—appears to have been about possible film-star ambitions; Puranik says it isn’t for her. The last glimpse we get is of her saying, “How can I tell you India’s future?”

In the 1960s, Films Division newsreels and documentaries were shown in theatres before the main feature. Amazingly, Puranik had never watched I Am 20 till last week. “Nobody told me it had released,” she says. “They should have. I think I remember my older sister’s friends saying, we saw Nayana in a film, but I never got to see it.”

I ask Puranik how it felt to watch a 20-year-old version of herself. “I couldn’t believe this girl is me,” she says. “Where is 20, where is 71?” She speaks about marrying early, spending the next few decades raising her three children, and how age was now taking a toll. She admits that a career outside her home was something that eluded her. “My mother never gave me the chance to take up a job,” she says. “I was never encouraged. Yeh ek kami reh gayi (this remains a regret).”

Still photography sets people in amber, preserving them for themselves. As Nayana Puranik discovered last week, sometimes film does this as well.

I Am 20 can be viewed on the Films Division channel on YouTube.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Gold: Review

There’s a line repeated four times over the course of Reema Kagti’s new film which posits that India winning gold in hockey at the 1948 London Olympics would mean “do sau saal ki ghulami ka badla (200 years of slavery avenged)”. The first person to say it is Tapan Das (Akshay Kumar), a sports official consumed with the idea of India winning at the Olympics as an independent nation (three previous hockey golds had gone to British India). The third is Tapan’s wife, who tells the Buddhist monks helping her cook for the team: “Don’t think that you’re just preparing food – you’re taking revenge for 200 years of slavery.”

Even in these divided times, perhaps we can all agree that the cooking of patta gobhi isn’t any kind of blow against the empire. It’s been a patriotic few years for Hindi cinema (and India in general), and Gold isn’t the first film to go overboard professing its nation-love. Gold begins with the 1936 Berlin Olympics. As the Indian players leave the stadium after a game, two young men break from the crowd and try to raise the Swaraj flag. In the ensuing confusion, Tapan, who’s on the team staff, grabs the flag and stuffs it under his coat. The flag makes a cameo when India, captained by the brilliant Samrat (Kunal Kapoor) – a stand-in for Dhyan Chand – wins the final. But you’d best believe its big dramatic moment comes later in the film.

It’s 1946, and Tapan is a down-on-his-luck alcoholic reduced to influencing punters at wrestling matches. The news that India is planning to send a hockey team to the London Games – the 1940 and ‘44 Olympics were cancelled because of the war – gives him some purpose in life, and he talks the higher-ups into allowing him to scout for players. After Samrat tells him that his playing days are over, Tapan brings in another player from 1936, Imtiaz (Vineet Kumar Singh), as captain. Younger players are recruited as well, including Raghubir Pratap Singh (Amit Sadh), of the Balrampur royal family, and Sikh village boy Himmat Singh (Sunny Kaushal), set on a collision course by an early musical number which cross-cuts between their respective childhoods.

Gold is a change of scale for Reema Kagti, who directed the ensemble drama Honeymoon Travels Pvt. Ltd and the noir thriller Talaash. Kagti, who also wrote this film, can certainly whip up a set-piece – the party song “Monobina” has a lusty energy reminiscent of “Gallan Goodiyaan” from Dil Dhadakne Do, which she co-wrote. The lighting and framing (cinematography by Álvaro Gutiérrez) is fetching, as it was in Talaash. Some of the period detail is wonderful; for instance, when Tapan is still a wrestling tout, one of the fighters is Stanislaus Zbyszko, a legendary grappler who acted in the 1950 film Night and the City. But Gold can only hint at the religious and class divides in the Indian team at the time, though they must have been an issue so soon after Partition. And the film is robbed of both pace and intelligence by its tendency to over-explain.

Film-maker Ernst Lubitsch once said that the audience need only be given two and two; they’ll come up with four themselves and appreciate you for it. Kagti gives the viewer two, two, four, and a calculator. You see this in the scene where Samrat (who’s been brought in to coach the new team) tells Tapan and Raghubir about his favourite moment as a player – the time he drew a bunch of opposition players, who were all man-marking him, into a corner of the field and then passed to a free teammate, resulting in the game’s only goal. Now, we’ve already been shown several times that Raghubir won’t pass the ball to his teammates, so the import of this scene is perfectly clear. But Tapan hammers on, telling Raghubir that the most important player isn’t the goal-scorer but the one whose actions result in the goal being scored. The story itself is a nice idea, but that extra beat, that crucial unwillingness to trust the viewer, reveals the film’s insecurities.

For a 150-minute sports film, Gold spends surprisingly little time on the field. And when we do get to see hockey being played, it’s perfunctory – all quick cutting and close-ups. We’re offered little by way of tactics or individual skills; the only specific thing we know about any of these players is that Raghubir doesn’t like to pass. As a result, the different matches have no distinct personality, unlike, say, the ones in Chak De! India, or the bouts in Dangal. There’s a lone moment of inspiration, borrowed from a famous Indian victory in another sport, but for the most part this film is less concerned about hockey than the politics that accompanied it.

Even as the quality of the writing ranges up and down, the cast is consistent and winning. Vineet Singh brings a weary dignity to his role as the Indian, then Pakistani, captain; Kunal Kapoor is relaxed and charismatic; and Sunny Kaushal is riveting as the young hothead who’s a softie when he’s with his girlfriend. Akshay Kumar is almost defeated by a thick Bengali accent and half-a-dozen drunken scenes; his lead turn is respectable – as most of his performances have been in the last couple of years – but I wish Kagti and Kumar had done more to lay bare the psychology of Tapan, an incurable optimist and a bit of a clown, who’s thrown into a downward spiral whenever he’s kept from serving his country.

Yes, the national anthem is played in the film, and yes, everyone in the audience save for a few ungrateful critics stood up. I wouldn’t want to deny anyone their performative patriotism, but I’m not sure what it says about where we are as a nation that a theatre-full of thinking adults watched the final scenes of a film on their feet like it’s a perfectly natural thing to do.

This review appeared in Mint.

How India watched herself in 1967

In 1967, S.N.S. Sastry took a routine government assignment and turned it into one of the great Indian short films. The country had been independent for 20 years, and the government—through Films Division, its newsreels and documentary wing—was looking to play up the occasion. Sastry responded with a 19-minute short, powered by a supercharged score by Vijay Raghava Rao, featuring a cross-section of young people born in 1947: 20-year-olds on their 20-year-old nation. But instead of playing like state propaganda, I Am 20 is anything but straightforwardly celebratory.

I Am 20 is one of a handful of Films Division shorts made in 1967 to coincide with the 20th anniversary of independence. These are available to view on YouTube, and are a precious window to how ordinary Indians regarded their country back then, and how the film-makers chose to present their views. It’s somewhat of a shock to hear, in I Am 20, a young man state matter-of-factly that he doesn’t have any love for his country (this is preceded by a pilot saying that India means everything to him). It’s difficult to imagine a sentiment like this turning up in any film today, let alone a government-funded one.

Sastry’s interviewees come from a variety of backgrounds and have markedly different world-views. There’s the young man whose ambition is to appear for the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) and be “a cog in the wheel”; the girl who says she was married at 8; the tractor-driving man who says he only splurges on movies. As with a few other Films Division shorts of that time, you get the feeling Sastry is slipping incendiary material past the authorities without them noticing. When one of the subjects talks optimistically about India’s future, saying that the average man has a “capacity to work”, Sastry intercuts between a labourer dragging a heavy cart down a street with shots of better off people in comfortable offices. The idea, unspoken, is that there’s a long way to go.

Sastry was the master of the deflating edit. He even casts a baleful eye on himself. When the IAS aspirant is asked about India’s progress over 20 years, he responds, “Of course we’ve made progress, the kind you show us in your documentary films.”

Face To Face (1967), credited to 20 directors (including future adman Alyque Padamsee), is another assemblage of state-of-the-nation interviews interspersed with scenes from around India. It’s less subversive than I Am 20, but just as clear-sighted. “No clothes, no food, nowhere to live, and you talk of democracy,” a woman in rural Bihar says bitterly. “A hundred years of slavery, it will take at least 50-60 years to remove that,” a taxi driver reasons. Another asks, in English, “Don’t you think India is flop, and getting flopper day by day?” The final words, courtesy a woman from Bengaluru, are poignant, considering the Emergency is only a few years away. “Freedom of speech is the most precious gift of Indian democracy,” she says. “In the end, it will justify the trust.”

It’s not like the government wasn’t putting out propaganda through Films Division—S.M. Junnarkar’s Two Decades is a feel-good summary of India’s achievements since it gained freedom. But they also let through Indian Youth: An Exploration. This early documentary by Shyam Benegal comes alive in its section on student politics in 1967. Over still photographs of burning buses and lathi-wielding cops, a voice says, “The violence in this country is not because of a lack of talent but because of a frustration of talent.”

In the Films Division titles of 1967, we can see that, though there’s still a general air of possibility, the sheen of independence has worn off somewhat, and young people are pushing against the older order and the system. It’s also clear what a rich time for non-fiction film-making it was. That year, S. Sukhdev (whose splendid hour-long documentary India 67 released in 1968) made the short film And Miles To Go, which contrasts the daily life of the very rich and the destitute. It’s didactic, but fascinating for the variety of filmic tricks Sukhdev throws at the screen: farmers lined up like a 1920s Soviet drama, a cavernous room out of Citizen Kane, a drawn-out climactic montage with statues, drawings, still photographs.

Pramod Pati’s Explorer goes even further. It might be the most anarchic 7 minutes ever committed to film by an Indian director. With its barrage of images—chanting priests, lab experiments, youngsters partying—accompanied by a brilliant electronic score by Vijay Raghav Rao, the film can be read as a comment on India pulled between the old and the new, or simply enjoyed for its surreal energy. Watch carefully, and you’ll see a split-second image that says “F*ck censorship”. It’s as if all the hope and scepticism expressed in I Am 20 has been compressed and released as a blast of pure subversive invention.

This piece appeared in Mint Lounge.

Vishwaroop II: Review

Liam Neeson is three years older than Kamal Haasan. I mention this because when Neeson plays an ex-special-ops-ex-assassin-currently-very-angry-dad, you don’t think, hey, that’s a 66-year-old. But when Haasan plays a superspy in Vishwaroop II, it’s another reminder that this is a country uncommonly indulgent of old, unfit men as action stars.

Kamal Haasan has hinted that this sequel to 2013’s Vishwaroopam will be one of his last films before he gives up cinema entirely for politics. One can only hope that the other swansongs are more flattering. Film can be an unforgiving medium, and the canniest performers understand that you can only cheat the camera when you’re young and beautiful. To see Haasan, with his protruding gut and flabby face and neck, pretend to be Jason Bourne is to realise that some stars are simply too powerful and insulated for even well-wishers to say: this is a probably a bad idea.

In Vishwaroopam, Nirupama (Pooja Kumar), a nuclear oncologist in New York City, finds out that her husband, Vishwanath (Haasan), isn’t a kathak teacher but a RAW agent named Visam Kashmiri. We then learn, through a series of flashbacks, that Visam was once an Al-Qaeda operative in Afghanistan. There, he won the trust of jihadi leader Omar Qureshi (Rahul Bose), a relationship which soured for reasons unknown. These reasons are revealed in Vishwaroop II, which picks up soon after the events of the first film, with Nirupama, Visam and RAW officers Jagannath (a sleepy Shekhar Kapur) and Ashmita (Andrea Jeremiah) on a plane to England, having saved New York from Qureshi’s dirty bomb.

Vishwaroop II was intended to follow on the heels of the first film before it got stuck in development limbo; reports at the time had hinted at a late 2013 release. This makes sense, given how the two films are essentially one long story; it also ties in with interviews Haasan gave in 2013, in which he said that a large chunk of part two had been shot along with the first film. In the sequel, we flash back to the same Afghanistan scenes that played out in Vishwaroopam, except now we’re shown what we always suspected – that Wisam was a undercover agent, helping RAW and the Americans get to Osama bin Laden and Qureshi by posing as an Al-Qaeda operative. Qureshi, who escapes at the end of the first film, vowing revenge, also reappears, wheezier and weirder than he was before.

Haasan has full control over Vishwaroop II – he’s the writer, director, co-producer and star – and yet it keeps getting away from him. The film never settles into a satisfying rhythm: irrelevant scenes are stretched beyond reason and important ones are rushed through (I’m still hazy on the details of the London terror plot). Instead of the terse back-and-forth of Hollywood thrillers, we get scene after scene of exposition, the odd “political” statement (“Musalman hona gunah nahi hai” – It’s not a sin to be Muslim), and some awful banter from Ashmita (who once had a crush on Wisam) and Nirupama (who wants to jump her husband, now that she knows he isn’t gay).

The other problem – a potentially debilitating one for an action film, except this is India – is that the set-pieces look ridiculous. This is mostly because Haasan is no action star, and has to be shielded by cutting up the scene till it’s all but incoherent. The grisliness of the violence is emphasised: we’re shown arms twisted back at unnatural angles, necks snapped, fresh bullet holes, a wound squirting blood, all manner of knifings, a severed head. It’s as if the extreme nature of the violence is meant to show how grown-up this world is, but all it does is underline the cartoonish nature of the enterprise, like a cheesy old Kung Fu movie where someone’s eye is pulled out but he goes on fighting anyway.

As audience surrogate Nirupama, Kumar gamely offers comic relief, as does Bose, though that couldn’t have been his, or the director’s, intention (an antagonist who’s being laughed at constantly isn’t serving the film well). But the focus is nearly always on Wisam: robotically competent, supercilious and, for a spy, distressingly short on witty rejoinders (“Ashmita, puh-lease,” he says – twice). One scene, with Haasan and Kumar in a hotel room, fairly throbs with his tiredness, the sense of a long innings coming to a close. When she asks him if he’s really hurt or just pretending, he says, with what seems like genuine hurt, “What do you think? All the time – acting?”

There is one touching scene, though. Wisam takes Nirupama to meet his mother (played by Waheeda Rahman), who’s in an old folks’ home in Delhi. On the wall in her room is Haasan’s shrine to himself: photographs from when he was a little boy, from his teenage years, and a familiar matinee-idol portrait. Wisam’s mother, who suffers from Alzheimer’s, mistakes him for a friend of her son’s; she starts telling him how her boy used to be such a talented dancer (Haasan, as a teenager, studied dance). As she reminisces, a song begins, and we’re taken into Wisam’s memories of his childhood. It’s a strange interlude, not affecting in itself but, rather, because we can see how moved Haasan is.

This review appeared in Mint.

Fanney Khan: Review

There’s no good place to start with Fanney Khan, so one may as well begin by asking: What ails Amit Trivedi? There was a time, not so long ago, when he was in Rahman-esque form: Lootera, Queen and Bombay Velvet, three of his best soundtracks, were consecutive releases for him. Yet now he seems adrift. His last notable work was 2016’s Udta Punjab, his trademark anthemic sound has started to grate, and if there’s a worse song this year than his Chumme Mein Chavanprash, I’m yet to hear it.

Last year, Trivedi supplied the soundtrack to Secret Superstar, about a young girl who wants to become a singer but whose efforts are thwarted by her conservative father. His latest collaboration, Atul Manjrekar’s Fanney Khan, also centres on a girl in a middle-class family with dreams of pop stardom in her head. That’s where the similarity ends: Fanney Khan – flamboyant, simplistic, often inane – makes the sober-sided Secret Superstar (which had its own problems balancing sweet and sour notes) look like Bicycle Thieves.

Lata’s (Pihu Sand) problem isn’t an overbearing father – indeed, she probably wishes her dad wouldn’t be so Dangal all the time and dump his unfulfilled dreams on her. Still, her parents are unusually supportive, she sings beautifully, dances, but is repeatedly frustrated because she doesn’t fit the popular image of a svelte superstar. At one talent competition, she’s heckled about her weight; at another, a judge jokes that had her parents named her after PT Usha instead of Lata Mangeshkar, she might have taken up running instead.

Prashant (Anil Kapoor), Lata’s father, a former orchestra singer, loses his job when the factory he works at is shut down. He becomes a cab driver, all the while plotting Lata’s ascent in the music world – he hopes to produce her debut album himself, but that’ll cost upwards of 15 lakh rupees, which is way beyond their means. Then one day, the most popular singer in the country, Baby Singh (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan), steps into his taxi. Does he tell her about Lata? Ask her to listen to a recording of the girl? No, he does what any devoted father would: slip his daughter’s favourite singer water spiked with sleep meds and drive off with her.

What might at one time have passed off as a comical kidnapping ends up a little queasy in the era of #MeToo – another woman drugged and held hostage by a stranger. An emotionally adept actor could have suggested these notes while staying true the comic demands of the script (Manjrekar and his co-writers Hussain Dalal and Abbas Dalal make a clumsy attempt, having Adhir (Rajkummar Rao), Prashant’s friend, tell Baby that they won’t rape her). But Baby doesn’t look particularly angry when she wakes up blindfolded and tied to a chair in an abandoned factory and learns that she’s being held for ransom. Rai is too unruffled a screen presence to convincingly sell the kind of silliness this film requires – for instance, the scene where she rubs herself on a panicked Adhir before sending him out to pick up her dog (this way he’ll smell her on him).

While Secret Superstar and Dangal built up to genuine catharsis, Fanney Khan doesn’t pack the same wallop, possibly because this film is more about Prashant than Lata. Sand has some good moments when she’s telling her father off, but we aren’t privy to Lata’s interior life. And we get a little too much of the singing, shouting, trumpet-playing Prashant, Kapoor selling every single moment so hard it’s wearying. Even Rao can’t rise above this material, though Girish Kulkarni, who plays Baby’s scheming manager, is as creepy as he needs to be.

This is Manjrekar’s first film, which might explain why he seems fascinated by the potentialities of the camera but not always in command of it. There are frequent lingering close-ups that are more uncomfortable than dramatic. In one scene, Manjrekar does the swirling camera movement so beloved of first-time directors and can’t seem to stop. Fanney Khan is a well-meaning feint at the issue of body-shaming and an exhortation to not give up on one’s dreams. Yet, it also shows the yawning chasm between intent and execution into which so many Hindi films fall.

This review appeared in Mint.

Mission: Impossible—Fallout: Review

The Mission: Impossible franchise has been around for six films now, one more than the Antoine Doinel series, in which Jean-Pierre Léaud grew from a young boy to a 30-something man. Mapping out a similar progression with Tom Cruise, who’s played Ethan Hunt in all six films, would be largely pointless. He’s the Dorian Gray of cinema, his face practically unlined at 56, his feet pumping like pistons whenever he launches into the busiest sprint in modern film. A portrait might grow hideous in an attic somewhere, but on screen, Cruise ages only infinitesimally.

Still, it’s understandable that Mission: Impossible—Fallout would, in the scattered moments of calm between its expert, undulating action sequences, turn a little nostalgic. Old characters show up, earlier films in the franchise are referenced. Hunt’s ability to deliver just in the nick of time is brought up several times, both as a source of humour and comfort. Ving Rhames, whose Luther has been the other constant over six films, gets more lines to intone in that unhurried baritone of his than he did in the last few outings. This isn’t a psychologically rich series, but that doesn’t mean these characters haven’t grown on us.

Mission: Impossible films were always twisty and spectacular, but something special happened on the fourth, Brad Bird’s Ghost Protocol (2011), in particular with the Burj Khalifa sequence. In an era where Hollywood action choreography has become simultaneously more extravagant and less involving, here was a man hanging off the side of a very tall building, like Harold Lloyd in Safety Last. Suddenly, Mission: Impossible wasn’t just the best action money could buy, it was also the most fun you could have at the movies (the expanded presence of Simon Pegg from this film helped). This was true of the next film, Rogue Nation (2015), and the latest, both directed by Christopher McQuarrie (who did an uncredited rewrite on Ghost Protocol).

Fallout is so convoluted that I gave up after a while and just accepted each reveal and double-double cross as it came. Hunt loses three plutonium cores sought by a group of terrorists known as The Apostles, led by the shadowy John Lark. There’s a “broker” (Vanessa Kirby, in a witty cameo), a sort of go-between for covert agencies and terror cells, and a minder—in the impossibly buff, incomparably square-jawed form of Henry Cavill—attached to the IMF team by the CIA. And Hunt’s rival/ally from the last film, Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), is back to kill some and confuse the rest. These pieces are endlessly realigned as we move from Belfast to Paris to London to Kashmir, but the central reveal is half-hearted, as if it doesn’t really matter who John Lark is as long as it isn’t Hunt.

Thankfully, all the clarity missing in the plot can be found in the pounding set-pieces. It’s become increasingly rare to see well-cut, non-deceptive action in a Hollywood film, so there is some satisfaction in how Fallout keeps us close to Cruise, whether he’s skydiving or flying a helicopter, but not so close that we can’t make out if it’s a stunt double. There’s a close combat scene in a men’s room, with a lithe Asian man (Liang Yang) almost taking out Cavill and Cruise, which is reminiscent of the John Wick films. But the rest is pure M:I, especially the breathless car/boat/foot chase through Paris, and another on the rooftops of London, a signature frantic Hunt run made funny by his receiving instruction from Benji (Pegg), who’s reading the terrain all wrong on his laptop.

Leave aside the fact that he’s a 56-year-old carrying multiple action franchises, there’s something about Tom Cruise that still gets younger viewers excited in a way they aren’t for Dwayne Johnson or Jason Statham. I think it’s because he’s an analog movie star in a digital age. Audiences are fed so much CGI in their films now that the sight of someone performing real feats, making an honest effort, goes a lot further than it used to.

Dhadak: Review

Dhadak is pretty much the same film as Sairat. Then why does it feel so different? Shashank Khaitan’s film is, in many instances, a scene-for-scene remake of the 2016 Marathi film, but something’s missing—and not just the thrill of first discovery. In Sairat, Nagraj Manjule turned Romeo-and-Juliet clichés on their head through his lyrical, heady direction and by messing with archetypes (one inversion of viewer expectations involved the lower-caste protagonist being played by a fair-skinned actor, and his upper-caste lover by a darker-skinned one). Dhadak, on the other hand, smoothens out the differences.

Midway through a food-guzzling obstacle course, Madhukar (Ishaan Khatter) catches his first glimpse of Parthavi (Janhvi Kapoor). She’s the daughter of hotelier and local politician Ratan Singh (Ashutosh Rana); he’s the son of a restaurant owner—lower down in the social order, but not as visibly, uncomfortably low as the boy’s family in Sairat. Madhukar is instantly besotted, and we get a version of Sairat’s Yad Lagla, following the ecstatic youngster as he leaps into a lake, runs home, washes and changes, rushes to the well where Parthavi is, and jumps in. It’s a faithful reworking, with Ajay-Atul’s fine music given new lyrics by Amitabh Bhattacharya, though somewhat let down at the end by Kapoor’s gaze, vague and unreadable where Rinku Rajguru’s was both unimpressed and keenly appraising.

Madhukar sets about wooing Parthavi—scenes debased by the film’s use of his friend, Purshottam (Shridhar Watsar), significantly shorter than the other characters, as a comic prop. This is the sort of desperate shtick you’d think Indian cinema had given up in the ‘90s, but Khaitan does seem to have a fondness for it, resurrecting the predatory gay figure in Badrinath Ki Dulhania. Here, Purshottam is dressed in a school uniform and sent to profess Madhukar’s love, a scene as head-scratchingly weird as it is offensive.

There was always the danger that Bollywood would play down the caste narrative of Sairat. There are two mentions of caste in Dhadak—both by Madhukar’s father when he warns the boy not to pursue the upper-caste girl. Yet, these do not arise organically from the material as it did in, say, Mukkabaaz, where caste is in the air, in the food. Parthavi’s family doesn’t mention caste at all. The film ends with an intertitle about lives lost to “honour killings”—the same ballpark, perhaps, but a dilution.

Soon, the young lovers are on the run, moving through Mumbai and Nagpur and settling in Kolkata. There they start to build a new life, renting a tiny room, Madhukar working as a waiter, Parthavi as a helpline employee. Khaitan, who captured with some accuracy the rhythms of Uttar Pradesh life and speech in Badrinath Ki Dulhania, fumbles here. Udaipur, a city with delightful wall art, is reduced to a set of tourist clichés: statutes, havelis, TV soap framing and a surfeit of meaningless aerial shots. Most of the dialogue is in Rajasthani-inflected Hindi, though it’s a nice touch when the action moves out of the state and Khaitan allows characters to speak in Marathi and Bengali without providing subtitles, allowing us to share in the isolation of the couple.

Whether by design or not, Dhadak comes to rest on the shoulders of its two leads. Ishaan Khatter, son of actors Rajesh Khattar and Neelima Azeem and half-brother to Shahid Kapoor, was impressively frazzled in Majid Majidi’s Beyond the Clouds. He has less to do in Dhadak but there’s a soulfulness to him that’s at odds with Hindi cinema’s current penchant for bratty, hyperactive onscreen male personas. Janhvi, daughter of the late Sridevi, is a more perplexing proposition—she doesn’t appear uncomfortable in front of the camera, but there’s a blankness that won’t leave her even when she’s emoting furiously. A little guidance might have helped; when she gulps “Kyun kiya mujh se pyaar (Why did you fall in love with me)?” her eyebrows do a little dance—an understandable, if distracting, tic, and an unexpected reminder of her mother, who could work miracles with a raised brow.

Sairat showed that it was possible to highlight caste in a bells-and-whistles commercial film, something Kaala did even more explicitly this year. By replicating the narrative but tossing in caste almost as an afterthought, Dhadak shows the limitations of mainstream Hindi cinema.

This review appeared in Mint.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

100 years of film censorship in India

Film censorship was born of fire. Early film stock had a compound called nitrocellulose, which was used in explosives as guncotton. Mixed with camphor, it became nitrate film—not explosive, but still violently flammable. In 1897, a year and a half after the first ever film screening, a nitrate fire at the Bazar de la Charité in Paris killed 126 people. A spate of similar incidents over the next decade resulted in the world’s first cinematograph legislation being passed in Britain in 1909, to improve safety standards by controlling the issue of cinema licences.

One kind of control led to another. Since the 1909 Act made licences necessary for public screenings, local authorities used this to regulate not just the conditions in which the film would be screened but also the contents of the film itself. After a few confusing years with everyone making up their own rules, the British Board of Film Censors was formed in 1912.

By this time, Indians were not only watching films but also making their own. After dozens of home-grown newsreels and shorts, the first full-length feature, D.G. Phalke’s Raja Harishchandra, released in 1913. In 1917, a Bill introduced in the imperial legislative council noted the “rapid growth in the popularity of cinematograph and increasing number of such exhibitions in India”. It recommended the creation of a law that would ensure both safety and the “protection of the public from indecent or otherwise objectionable representations”. Thus was born the Cinematograph Act of 1918, and, with it, film censorship in India.

A suitable film
The 1918 Act gave the district magistrate (or, in Rangoon, the commissioner of police) the power to issue licences to exhibitors, and the government to appoint inspectors to examine and certify films as “suitable for public exhibition”. It did not, however, mention what the inspectors were to look out for. What a suitable film was—or, at least, what it wasn’t—began to become clearer in 1920, when censor boards were set up in Bombay, Madras, Calcutta and Rangoon (a fifth was established in Lahore in 1927). To judge the appropriateness of films, both local and foreign, for release, these boards adopted a set of rules.

“No generally and rigidly applicable rules of censorship can be laid down.” The general principles of the Bombay Board of Film Censors began with these encouraging words, then proceeded to lay out 43 objectionable subjects (most of them taken verbatim from a famous list compiled by politician T.P. O’Connor for the British censors in 1917). Rules 21 and 22 were key: “Scenes holding up the King’s uniform to contempt or ridicule” and “Subjects dealing with India, in which British or Indian officers are seen in an odious light”. Film-makers were also advised to steer clear of “Gruesome murders and strangulation scenes”, “Unnecessary exhibition of feminine underclothing” and “Indecorous dancing”. No.40—“Confinements”—must have struck Indian directors as grimly ironic; 1920 was the start of the non-cooperation movement, and jails all over the subcontinent were full.

With one eye on the freedom movement, another on the barrage of Axis propaganda, the British government in India ordered a cinematic fact-finding mission. The Indian cinematograph committee (ICC) of 1927-28, chaired by a former Madras high court judge, T. Rangachariar, was the first comprehensive inquiry into movie viewing, censoring and exhibiting habits in the country, and an acknowledgment by the British of cinema’s increasing popularity in India. In 1921, there were an estimated 148 movie halls in India; by 1927, this number had doubled. Despite Hollywood films accounting for roughly 80% of the shows in those early years, it was the Indian titles which really got the public going. In its report, the committee said: “The crowds which flock to witness a popular Indian film (and many of them are popular) are really remarkable.”

The ICC’s sensible suggestions—setting up a central board of censors, a system of appeals, classifying titles as U and A—were not put into practice, a fate which would befall other painstakingly compiled reports on Indian cinema in the years to come. Still, the report and its attendant documents are a fascinating snapshot of Indian movie-going in the 1920s, with interviewees ranging from Phalke to Lala Lajpat Rai (didn’t like Charlie Chaplin) and M.K. Gandhi (didn’t like cinema). The responses testify to the hold cinema had over viewers in this country—that unique ability to transport, to transfix and to linger on—even before the introduction, in 1931, of sound, and with it, the signature genre of Indian cinema: the musical. “The Picture House possesses all the attractions of real life,” a Lucknow judge, Bhagwat Prasad, wrote to the ICC. “We find ourselves in the midst of people in the screen and become interested in them. Our tears for their sorrows and our delight at the successes are immediately called forth. The effect which is produced in our minds is instantaneous and it is not soon effaced.”

No politics, please
Despite the long list of objectionable subjects, Indian cinema wasn’t exactly prurient in the 1920s and 1930s. Hamarun Hindustan (1930) had an intimate scene with Sulochana and Jal Merchant. Film-maker J.B.H. Wadia recalled, years after the fact, Lalita Pawar kissing her co-star “without inhibition” in a film, and Jal Merchant and Zubeida “kissing each other quite often” in 1932’s Zarina (depending on which account you read, Zarina had a total of 34, 48 or 82 kisses). Actors kiss in the Franz Osten-directed Shiraz (1928) and A Throw Of Dice (1929). And there’s the famous kiss in Karma (1933), which has gone down in legend as being 4 minutes long, though it lasts only a minute and involves a snake and a tearful Devika Rani trying to bring a comatose Himanshu Rai to life.

The British had bigger problems than a few onscreen kisses. “The main preoccupation of the British censor was not the passionate love scenes then common in Indian cinema but the threat of communal discord and the expression of nationalistic sentiments,” Suresh Chabria writes in Light Of Asia: Indian Silent Cinema, 1912-1934. Mentioning British excesses, the Indian National Congress, self-governance, or even revolution in other countries (Juarez, a 1939 Hollywood film about the fight for self-rule in 1860s Mexico, was forbidden by the Bengal censors) was enough to earn your film a cut or a ban. “It’s a strange phenomenon which we find in this country to see the Government-sponsored Indian News Parade claiming to give all the news to the Indian people while the Censors black-out the Nation’s beloved leaders who make the most news,” cine-journal Filmindia complained in 1945, noting that even framed photographs of national leaders were cut from films.

Then there was the ultimate taboo: Gandhi. Listed in the Journal Of The Motion Picture Society Of India (1937) are the titles of banned newsreels—Mahatma Gandhi’s Historic March, Gandhi Sees The King, Bombay Welcomes Mahatma Gandhi, Mahatma Gandhi After his Release, and several others—short non-fiction reports that the British clamped down on. In fact, Gandhi was the hidden subject of the first film to be banned in India. The protagonist of Bhakta Vidur (1921)—with his Gandhi cap, Khadi clothes and spinning wheel—was deemed, quite rightly, to be a stand-in for the Mahatma. Thyagabhoomi (1939) met the same fate; in The Encyclopaedia Of Indian Cinema, it’s mentioned that the Tamil film had documentary inserts of the leader, and that protagonist Sambhu Sastry “is portrayed as the Gandhi of Tamil Nadu, sitting on a dais spinning with a charkha”.

It wasn’t just a case of official paranoia over newsreels, then shown before all feature film screenings. Indian fiction film directors were finding ways to talk about the ongoing freedom struggle without mentioning it directly. "Door Hato O Duniyawalo", the hit musical number from Kismet (1943), is ostensibly a warning to the Germans and the Japanese, but the actual target is clearly the British. In a 1970 interview, writer-director K.A. Abbas mentions historical films like Umaji Naik (1926) and Swarajya Toran (1930), which replaced the British with other invading forces, and social films like Wrath (1930) and Apna Ghar (1942), which spoke in a kind of code to Indian viewers. “There was ferment all over the country,” Abbas recalls, “and it was reflected in the arts and the cinema.”

In the 1940s, the policing of Indian cinema grew more stringent. Out of 1,774 films seen by the Bombay censors in 1943, 25 required modification before they could be released; that number went up to 464 (out of 3,099) by 1948. Through the Film Inquiry Committee report submitted to the government in 1951, we get a picture of what censorship was like in the years leading up to, and just after, independence. Things were, to put it mildly, chaotic. The five censor boards examined films separately, and each had their own set of rules and local pressures. Often, a title passed by one would be rejected by another. In addition, the government—of India, or of a particular state—might deny a certificate to a film passed by the censors, a fate which could befall a noir (The Postman Always Rings Twice, 1946) or a war film (All Quiet On The Western Front, 1930) as easily as it could a propaganda newsreel (Inside Nazi Germany, 1938).

This was also the decade that saw the disappearance of the kiss from Indian cinema—a curtailment so long and stifling that it hasn’t fully returned yet. Crucially, this wasn’t due to a change in censor rules, but because of a societal shift towards moral caution and “Indian” values. In film critic and historian B.D. Garga’s words, “Kissing disappeared from the Indian screen not because of a fiat of the censor but because of pressures brought on by social and religious groups.” It was a sign that film censorship in free India would depend not only on official sanction but on societal approval.

One board to rule them all
In the Bombay Calling column in the February 1949 issue of Filmindia, Baburao Patel praised, in his combative way, a recent development. “We have been asking for this for the last 15 years,” he wrote of the move to centralize film censorship, before suggesting the puritanical Morarji Desai as a possible chairman. Over the next few years, a Central Board of Film Censors (CBFC, renamed as Central Board of Film Certification in 1983) was set up, regional boards were abolished, and U and A were adopted as certification categories.

The scrapping of the 1931 Indian Press (Emergency Powers) Act after independence effectively abolished newspaper pre-censorship in India. Yet, as Arpan Banerjee notes in his essay Political Censorship And Indian Cinematographic Laws: A Functionalist-liberal Analysis, there was no corresponding move to free cinema of that restriction. “The Act of 1918 was repealed, but it was later replaced with a law not dissimilar in scope,” he writes. This was the Cinematograph Act of 1952, the cornerstone—and, in many ways, the millstone—of film censorship in India.

The 1952 Cinematograph Act sets out the structure of censorship as it stands today: the chairperson at the top, then the board members, then the advisory panels (members of the initial examining committee and the revising committee, which do much of the actual examination of films, are drawn from these). Everyone, from the chairperson down to the advisory panel members, is a government appointee. And every government at the Centre has taken advantage of this, staffing the CBFC with party loyalists eager to make cuts and deny certificates to films critical of the establishment. The Emergency saw the most blatant use of this power, with Gulzar’s Aandhi (1975) and Amrit Nahata’s Kissa Kursi Ka (1977) banned, and Shyam Benegal’s Nishant (1975) stuck in a bureaucratic tangle, because they were perceived as critical of the Congress government.

What makes the Cinematograph Act such a problematic piece of legislation? In short, it gives the CBFC—technically, a certification body—vague and vast powers to play censor. The crux is Section 5B of the Act, which states that any film that is against the “interests of [the sovereignty and integrity of India] the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality, or involves defamation or contempt of court or is likely to incite the commission of any offence” can be denied a certificate. It further asks the government to frame rules according to which the CBFC will function.

These guidelines, which have only increased in number over the years, make for depressing reading. Censors are tasked with ensuring that films provide “clean and healthy entertainment” and do not “deprave the morality of the audience”—instructions broad and stodgy enough to cover anything from a raised middle finger to an orgy. Many of the rules that the CBFC can cite to demand cuts are the same as those followed before independence (no endangering of public order, no depicting the modus operandi of criminals)—which gives one an idea of how archaic our censorship mindset is.

Not all these rules are followed to the letter; if they were, hardly any films would make it to theatres. But they exist, vague and convenient, and that is enough. No Central government has made serious attempts to change them, because they are so useful. You cannot release a film in theatres without a CBFC certificate. And you can’t get a certificate without having a government-appointed body passing judgement on your film.

Taking censorship to court
In his early days as a critic, K.A. Abbas pushed for the censure of blithely racist Hollywood films like Gunga Din (“It is not enough even if we manage to get the film banned in India,” he wrote in 1939). It’s somewhat ironic, then, that he was the one person (until an attempt by Amol Palekar last year) to challenge the idea of pre-censorship in court. In 1968, Abbas—already well-known as the screenwriter of Awara and Shree 420—made a 16-minute documentary, Char Shahar Ek Kahani, which had scenes showing prostitution in Mumbai. The CBFC’s examining committee handed the film an “A” certificate; after Abbas protested, the revising committee reached the same conclusion. After a fruitless appeal to the Central government, Abbas petitioned the Supreme Court, arguing that pre-censorship was antithetical to freedom of speech and expression.

The court ruled against Abbas. “The censorship imposed on the making and exhibition of films is in the interests of society,” said the judgement, though it also asked Parliament and the government to do more to separate the objectionable from the socially valuable. Though Abbas’ suit was probably doomed from the start, it did have one useful fallout: the formation, in 1981, of the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal (FCAT), a quasi-judicial body headed by a retired high court judge, which one could approach if unhappy with the decision of the CBFC’s examining and revising committees.

This is pretty much where things stand today. There have been some minor developments in the years since—films must now carry no-smoking advisories, and it’s almost impossible to shoot a scene with a live animal. In addition to the ever-arbitrary demands of the board—a blurred brassiere here, a bleeped “virgin” there—censorship by mob has emerged as a disturbing issue. Bal Thackeray demanding his own cuts in Mani Ratnam’s Bombay in 1995 and the Shiv Sena’s protests against Deepa Mehta’s Fire in 1998 have acted as a blueprint for violent political groups, which have threatened the makers of films from Ae Dil Hai Mushkil to Padmaavat into deleting scenes and delaying releases. Though most directors, writers and actors today are affected by censorship, the film community—especially Bollywood—has shown little willingness to band together on the issue. “Bollywood does not care,” director Dibakar Banerjee says, “because it knows it will somehow navigate through the bureaucratic red tape to survive. It’s a vestige of the licence raj.”

Hope seemed to surge through the film world when Shyam Benegal was appointed head of a committee to look into censorship in 2016. Those who greeted this as a stepping stone to dismantling censorship were probably unaware that there was a similar committee in 2013 under Justice Mukul Mudgal, whose report made many of the suggestions that the Benegal one did—and which was never implemented. Or that, back in 1969, a committee headed by G.D. Khosla, and counting amongst its members K.A. Abbas, Umashankar Joshi and R.K. Narayan, recommended an autonomous, independent censor board. Letting important reports gather dust is a time-honoured tradition for an opaque bureaucracy like India’s, something that the 83-year-old Benegal seems to have made peace with. When I met him at his office in Tardeo, Mumbai, he said: “I have no idea how much (of the report) has been accepted. I have reminded them any number of times until I’ve lost interest in it.”

In an interview to The Hindu in January 2002, Vijay Anand, director of Guide and Jewel Thief and the CBFC chief at the time, was asked whether the media was right to pick on the board’s decisions. “Why not?” he replied. “We are the visible mouthpiece of a moralistic society.” This is an uncomfortably honest self-assessment, but there’s some truth to the idea that the board, whether headed by Anand or Leela Samson or Pahlaj Nihalani, isn’t entirely to blame. Film censorship in India can only be fixed if the rules governing it are overhauled. This, in turn, means changing an attitude that has persisted since the days of the British: the tendency to treat the viewer as incapable. Every week, movie-watchers across the country make hard decisions—to go by the review in the morning paper or by their neighbour’s thumbs-down, to spend ₹200 on a predictable big film or on a small, uneven one. Deciding whether a particular film will offend their sensibilities should also be left to them.

This piece led off the '100 years of censorship' package in Mint Lounge.

Isle of Dogs: Review

If stop motion didn’t already exist, one gets the feeling Wes Anderson would have invented it. It’s difficult to imagine any other animation style working as well for him. Every characteristic of stop motion is reflected in his cinema: the detailing, the tactility, the slight formality, a world of effort concentrated in a single gesture or frame.

Isle of Dogs is Anderson’s second animated feature after his adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr Fox, and the first he’s built from an original story. And I do mean original. One can picture Anderson telling studio executives, “So, there’s this evil mayor of a dystopian Japanese city who banishes all the dogs to a trash island after an outbreak of canine flu. Tilda Swinton is a pug named Oracle. I’m thinking I’ll make it mostly in Japanese.” And, after an awkward silence, “Bill Murray’s in it.”

In a prologue rendered in ravishing still images, we’re told that the cat-loving Kobayashi dynasty had once waged war on dogs, nearly wiping out the entire population, before a boy samurai killed the head of the clan. But the ancient grudge has persisted; the mayor who orders the exile of the dogs is named Kobayashi. He starts with Spots, the bodyguard hound of his young ward, Atari. Soon, all dogs in Megasaki—unused to fending for themselves, many of them down with snout fever—have been deported to the trash heap of an island off the coast.

Even in a Wes Anderson film—not the most canine-friendly environment—you apparently can’t keep a boy and his dog apart. Atari crash-lands his plane on the island and is discovered by Chief (Bryan Cranston), Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Boss (Bill Murray) and Duke (Jeff Goldblum). Despite Chief’s protests—he was a stray back in Megasaki, and feels no kinship towards humans—they decide to help him look for Spots.

It’s easy to get lost in the off-kilter rhythms of stop-motion—all those famous voices charmingly out-of-sync with the facial movements of the characters—but try and tear your gaze from time to time to the ingenious, ever-changing backdrops. The trash piles up scene after scene like so many art installations (a cave constructed out of used sake bottles—the dogs did that?), and a couple of the landscapes left me short of breath, as when we look down on Atari and the pack walking in single file, a row of rusted trucks on one side, a sheer drop on the other, The West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band’s I Won’t Hurt You gently throbbing on the soundtrack.

In the wake of the film’s release, some have expressed discomfort with what they think are Japanese stereotypes that Anderson has used. I wouldn’t presume to tell anyone to not feel culturally offended, but it’s worth noting that Anderson’s style has always been dependent on archetypes, from artistic, high-strung New York Jews to suave, sexually flexible Continentals. His vision of India in The Darjeeling Limited struck me as neither offensive not authentic—just Anderson looking, in his peculiar way, at a part of the world that fascinates him. Similarly, I’d hesitate to attach deeper significance to the deportations in Isle of Dogs—if Anderson’s a political filmmaker, he keeps it well-hidden. One charge against him I’ve never agreed with, though, is that he’s too clever, not emotional enough. Show me another director who can take a conversation between two dogs, strangers speaking in uninflected voices in the dark of night , and make it hurt like a Raymond Carver story.

This review appeared in Mint.