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.