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.