Thursday, October 31, 2019

The art of the unhurried interview

George Plimpton, American sports writer and co-founder of The Paris Review, was an evangelist for the art of the interview. “Try to think of the interview as a dramatic form in itself," he advised a contributor to the journal, “where one’s tools are very much the dramatic devices: character buildup, suspense, surprise, argument even." On another occasion, he said, “The best interviews not only divulge something about the character of the writer, but have a surprise or two in them, and maybe even a plot."

Film interviewing in India rarely fulfils the Plimptonian ideal. Too often, it’s a less-than-illuminating barter of print space for a star’s time. Even the better interviews centre on films about to release, thus limiting the scope of the conversation. TV interviews are mostly cosy affairs, with anchor and guest trading gossip. Cinema-centric publications are few, and even in these interviews are “pegged" to release dates.

Every journalist has at least one story about when they kept talking with a subject for hours until, magically, something was revealed. Indian film stars rarely grant that kind of access and Indian film journalists rarely seek it. Unless you are lucky, the 20-minute discussion that fills a half-page in a daily will yield little more than rehearsed answers.

Still, a few individuals have been steadily pushing the practice of the unhurried interview. They work in markedly different fields: as an author, a TV anchor, a preservationist. But they are united by a determination to reveal the workings of Indian film, and to record the memories of its practitioners while they are still around.


There’s nothing like the moment when a seasoned interviewer says, “I didn’t know that."

One such admission comes 110 pages into Conversations With Waheeda Rehman, Nasreen Munni Kabir’s book-length interview with the actor. They have already spoken about her famous films with Guru Dutt (Pyaasa, Kaagaz Ke Phool) and her lone collaboration with Satyajit Ray, Abhijan. Kabir brings up Guide—perhaps Rehman’s most celebrated performance—and asks her if she had read R.K. Narayan’s source novel before it was turned into a movie. Rehman replies: “It was Mr Ray who asked me to read the novel because he was considering adapting it."

Kabir’s research is clearly exhaustive—one of her earlier questions is about a portrait of Rehman painted in the early 1960s by Kaagaz Ke Phool’s set designer, M.R. Achrekar. So when she reveals that she wasn’t aware of a detail this significant, what she’s really telling the reader is: How exciting! Over Skype, Kabir says it always makes her very happy when her subjects say something she suspects no one knows. “You know you haven’t heard it. And you can see they are excited, and they talk faster, and if you try and interrupt them they won’t listen to you."

Kabir started out in the 1970s as an assistant to other directors, including French legend Robert Bresson. She helped organize Indian film festivals for the Pompidou Centre in Paris, and directed the 1989 documentaries In Search Of Guru Dutt and Amitabh Bachchan: Follow That Star. But it was Movie Mahal (1986-88), a 46-part guide to Hindi cinema that she made for British TV, which prompted publisher Rukun Advani to suggest she do a book-length interview.

Kabir was initially hesitant, but when she approached Javed Akhtar with the idea he was enthusiastic. The result was Talking Films, a freewheeling discussion about Akhtar’s screenwriting career as one half of the iconic Salim-Javed duo (the two would later sit down for another book, Talking Songs, in which Akhtar discusses his equally influential career as a lyricist).

At the time, Kabir couldn’t have known she would become synonymous with the interview book. She has since published conversations with Waheeda Rehman, writer-director Gulzar (twice), singer Lata Mangeshkar, composer A.R. Rahman and percussionist-composer Zakir Hussain. Each discussion usually stretches over 16-20 sessions of about 2 hours each, in person or over Skype.

It’s useful, Kabir says, to establish one’s own credentials as an interviewer early on. “The most important thing is to surprise them, because they have done thousands of interviews. If you ask them ‘What’s your most important film?’ and they say Guide, that’s the end of the conversation." She believes the interviewer’s voice can be present in the discussion without making it to the page. “Often I am an active participant, but when I complete the book, I cut my questions in half. I don’t want the reader to think I am a smart-ass."

Once the conversations are done, Kabir gives them out for transcribing. When they are returned to her, she edits each session one by one. “Then I start cutting and pasting so it flows. If someone talks about tomatoes and then in the next session talks about tomatoes again, you have to join them in the book. A conversation needs to be a seamless advance."


In 2018, Shivendra Singh Dungarpur was invited to screen Celluloid Man, his documentary on film archivist P.K. Nair, and give a talk at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles. He spoke, as he often does, about the vast swathes of Indian cinema that lay undocumented. Afterwards, he was approached by the Academy, which has been recording oral histories—career-spanning interviews with actors, directors and technicians—since 1989. Would Dungarpur like to conduct his own oral histories with Indian film professionals?

A history-minded documentarian and founder of the Film Heritage Foundation (FHF), an organization dedicated to the preservation of cinema, Dungarpur had already dabbled in oral history. He had recorded Gulzar at length on tape and shot for 4 hours with actor Kamini Kaushal. Celluloid Man itself was a sort of oral history of Nair. “I was anxious that nothing was being done to archive these legends on film," Dungarpur told me when we met at the FHF office in Tardeo, Mumbai. He immediately said yes to the Academy.

Before Dungarpur and his team could start, though, they had to learn how to conduct the interviews—which meant unlearning what they knew about interviewing. “Oral history is all about the speaker deciding what they want to say," Dungarpur explains. The camera would not move. There would be no leading questions or interjections. This is the exact opposite of Kabir’s approach, where the interviewer’s personality shapes the conversation as much as the guest’s. Here the interviewers must subsume themselves for the sake of the discussion.

The FHF started out by researching each subject’s life’s work, doing some in-house and outsourcing the rest to film scholars they trusted. A detailed filmography was assembled in each case, key films identified, and a questionnaire prepared. Rohini Singh, who worked at the FHF and assisted Dungarpur on the histories, says the conversations usually lasted 4-7 hours. “This is the longest interview most of them have sat for. We have to reinforce the idea that this isn’t any old interview, that they are the narrator."

Since February, the FHF has interviewed film-makers Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Buddhadeb Dasgupta and Mani Ratnam, actors Amitabh Bachchan, Madhabi Mukherjee, Soumitra Chatterjee, and Vishwa Mehra, Raj Kapoor’s uncle. I was shown excerpts from a couple of conversations, which will eventually be made available by both the Academy and FHF. Mani Ratman talks about the perils of directing great performers: “You realize that the better the actor, they can convince you with anything, and you have still got to make sure the edges are sharp and they don’t stray." Asked what acting means to him, Bachchan gives a reflex sound bite (“It’s a job"), but, faced with silence, expands this into a thoughtful response, speaking almost wistfully about how the current crop of actors immerse themselves in their characters whereas he “just wanted to learn the lines".


The longest-running film interview show of its kind in India is on Rajya Sabha TV, a channel few even know exists. Guftagoo has aired weekly since 2011, with more than 350 episodes in the bank. Its host is Syed Mohd Irfan, whose unassuming manner belies his reputation as an incisive interviewer. He worked for years as a freelance broadcast and communications professional in TV and radio, teaching, doing voice-over work, and hosting the popular vintage film music programme Dil Ne Phir Yaad Kiya on FM Gold.

Irfan started Guftagoo with the idea of chronicling, for half an hour every week, a little piece of Indian cinema (the full episodes, which sometimes last an hour, are on RSTV’s YouTube channel). That so many luminaries have passed on without being recorded spurred Irfan. “I didn’t know who Iftekhar was," he said over the phone from Delhi. “I didn’t know Mukri either. Who was Om Prakash? What was Hangal’s life story?"

RSTV may not be prestigious but it has over three million subscribers on YouTube, which is where, Irfan says, most people watch his show now. And since a Parliament channel doesn’t care about inviting guests based on whose film is releasing, Irfan can talk to pretty much whoever he wants, about whatever interests him (four consecutive episodes last year were with Telugu writer-director B. Narsing Rao, French subtitler François-Xavier Durandy and Hindi film actors Konkona Sensharma and Anupam Kher). He assembles the show by himself—a habit formed in his radio days—doing his own research and making guest bookings.

Most of Irfan’s guests are happy to be interviewed by him. The conversation with the late Tom Alter has a warm start, with smiles on the host’s and guest’s faces. Singer Usha Uthup starts hers by saying she’d been hoping to be invited, and telling Irfan, “Mujhe khaas taur se aap pasand hain (I like you in particular)."

Yet it’s not always smooth, and that’s when you see the steel under Irfan’s unruffled manner. In his conversation with Piyush Mishra, the actor sits in a strange sideways fashion, shoulder aimed at the camera, remarks addressed to the side. Irfan lets him finish his first answer, then says firmly, “Aankh se aankh mila kar baat kariye (look me in the eye and speak)."

The opening moments with Jackie Shroff are even more tense. Irfan starts by asking the star about his parents. Shroff bristles. “Don’t you think you are asking me to go a little deep, asking me about my mother who’s no more?" he snaps. “She’s everywhere, but that doesn’t mean I have to dig her up." Irfan remembers thinking then that the interview was over. But he keeps his composure and Shroff’s mood quickly lifts. It ended up as one of his most popular episodes.

Irfan talks about finding the sur (tune) of an interview. You can see him discover it more than halfway through his conversation with Akshay Kumar. Kumar responds to the host’s questions about his early life professionally, without much show of emotion. Irfan keeps at it patiently, probing the actor’s mentions of his interest in sports, trouble with studies, and strict father. It bears fruit in the 17th minute, when Kumar opens up and recalls how he once told his father, who was berating him for his low marks: “I will become a hero one day." Suddenly, guest and host are laughing and the interview has found its music.

Most Guftagoo sessions unfold at the guests’ homes. This allows for a new setting every week, but it also leaves Irfan at the mercy of the surroundings. As he notes wryly: “In Bombay (Mumbai), someone is always cutting stones." In a 2016 episode, after a series of thuds from the construction work outside, voice artist Chetan Shashithal interrupts his story and advises the sound engineer to adjust the volume so the microphone isn’t damaged.

Sometimes, though, setting and subject align beautifully. Writer and comedian Varun Grover told me that when he was interviewed, “Irfan very calmly took me aside and said ‘Hum log thoda itminaan se baat aap bataaiye kahaan comfortable hoga (We are going to have a relaxed chat…you tell me where you will be comfortable).’ I told him we can sit on the floor. He agreed."

Irfan doesn’t like keeping a set of questions in front of him. He’s calm, even bland, on the surface, but is searching constantly for a thread to the discussion. Sometimes, he already has it—a remark on another show by actor Pankaj Tripathi about how there’s a woman inside him—but he seems to relish seeking it out. “He seemed to be in a trance throughout, stable and fixed gaze," Grover says about his experience on the show, “and absolutely focused on giving the conversation a unique character. After watching the interview, I think I realized what he was going for. Slow-burn but with bursts of high-flame stir-fries in between."

These high-flame stir-fries often take guests by surprise. “People actually start crying," Irfan says. “I have to take a break."

One can see the influence of Guftagoo on Neelesh Misra’s Slow Interview series (on YouTube). Kabir’s work can be said to have cleared the way for interview books like Baradwaj Rangan’s Conversations With Mani Ratnam. Some interview-based Indian cinema podcasts (Anything But Bollywood, Cinema Beyond Entertainment) have also surfaced.

These are encouraging signs, even if the slow film interview has a long way to go before it takes root. We have already failed to preserve our silent cinema. Every few months, another unrecorded fragment of our film history passes away. Simply by getting experts to speak, Kabir, Irfan and Dungarpur are working as archivists. The conversations may be unhurried, but the task could not be more urgent.

This piece appeared in Mint Lounge.

Jabariya Jodi: Review

A few weeks ago, Hrithik Roshan was on the big screen, doing battle with the Bihari tongue. It was, like everything the actor does, labour-intensive. Still, honest effort will get you somewhere – after all, Hrithik completes 20 years in Hindi film soon. Will Sidharth Malhotra, whose Bihari accent in Jabariya Jodi comes and goes like a bad habit, be around in 2032? It seems unlikely. You might look like a Bernini sculpture, but eventually people are going to expect you to do the job you’ve been hired for.

And what of Parineeti Chopra? She murders Bihari as comprehensively as Malhotra (whom she starred with in the odd but involving Hasee Toh Phasee in 2014), but a bigger problem might be the “Parineeti-type" character she’s chosen to play (or been handed) again. She had considerable success early on, in films like Ladies Vs Ricky Bahl, Ishaqzaade and Shuddh Desi Romance, playing outspoken, impulsive women. But that sort of adorable impetuosity has become familiar: Diana Penty in Happy Bhag Jayegi (2016) and Kriti Sanon in Bareilly Ki Barfi (2017) are just two recent iterations. When Chopra revisits it in Jabariya, it’s a strange case of stereotype meeting originator.

Abhay (Malhotra) is a Patna tough, an arranger of jabariya shaadis – forced weddings. He kidnaps grooms who ask for dowry and forces them to marry at gunpoint; the girl’s family pays Abhay’s father for services rendered. It’s as barbaric a practice as dowry, but director Prashant Singh and writer Sanjeev K Jha treat it as a joke: Look at those unhappy men from wealthy families who will almost certainly take their frustrations out on their new brides! One such comic scene has Abhay sending up a punctured condom to the married couple they have under lock and key – the idea being that a pregnant woman is tougher to abandon. For a film ostensibly concerned about a woman’s right not to be sold as a piece of property, this is a stunningly tone-deaf piece of writing.

It’s at one of his shotgun weddings that Abhay runs into Babli (Parineeti Chopra), whom he was in love with as a child, before her family moved town. They fall for each other again, but when her father (Sanjay Mishra, visibly bored) finds out, he decides to get her married to someone else. Of course, Abhay is hired to jabariya Babli’s wedding. She gets mad, kidnaps him. He kidnaps her. There’s a slo-mo sad song fight sequence. There’s something about six pheras.

As Babli’s steadfast friend and emotional piñata, Aparshakti Khurana does his reputation no harm. This is the only silver lining I can offer. It’s been a year of offensively bad films – PM Narendra Modi, Thackeray, Kesari. But anger and disgust will keep you awake, which is more than I can say for Jabariya Jodi.

This review appeared in Mint.

Judgementall Hai Kya: Review

One of the people thanked in the opening credits of Judgementall Hai Kya is Sriram Raghavan. Whether or not he was involved with the film, this nod by director Prakash Kovelamudi and screenwriter Kanika Dhillon isn’t out of place. The film unfolds in Mumbai and London, but the real setting is Raghavan-land. There’s a death in the first few minutes. There are posters that read “Grand Guignol" (and actual Grand Guignol). And there’s that creeping doubt: should we be enjoying this?

Bobby (Kangana Ranaut) has acute psychosis, attributed to her inadvertently causing the death of her parents when she was a child. She’s paranoid, nervy, in and out of psychiatric institutions. She won’t take her medicines, so she hears voices in her head. Her work as a dubbing artist for pulpy south Indian films probably isn’t helping with her equilibrium: she’s a voice in someone’s head herself. She sees signs everywhere, literally – a man holding up a placard with fortune-cookie messages.

When a young couple moves into the apartment she’s letting out, Bobby quickly becomes obsessed with Keshav (Rajkummar Rao), who enters her dubbing-session fantasies and sets off RD Burman roars in her head. She’s clearly unstable – spying on the couple as they make love, hallucinating about cockroaches – and for a while that’s all this film is about. But then there’s a grisly accident, Bobby and Keshav are both suspects, and the tone switches from dark to pitch-black.

Ranaut’s willingness to inhabit different shades of instability has made her one of the most exciting Indian actors of the past decade. She’s always played women on the verge: Woh Lamhe, Fashion, Tanu Weds Manu and its sequel, Simran. So it’s somewhat surprising that when she now plays a character who's over the edge, it feels a little second-guessed. The hysterical laughter, the sudden rages – I felt I was watching Kangana imitating Kangana playing one of her characters.

This feeling of meta-ness isn’t accidental. In fact, Judgementall Hai Kya is at its most intriguing when seen as a commentary on Ranaut’s career. There are nods, not exactly subtle, to films like Revolver Rani and Manikarnika. Old co-stars turn up: Rao, Jimmy Sheirgill. Bobby is accused – as Ranaut has so often been – of lies and unstable behaviour, and she responds as Ranaut always does: head-on. “Character mein ghus jaati hai (she really inhabits the character)," someone says of Bobby – again, something that’s often been remarked about Ranaut.

When the action moves to London, the film simultaneously opens up and spins a little beyond reach. Here’s where the Raghavan comparisons end: Judgementall Hai Kya has a brilliant premise, but lacks the corrosive wit and discipline of Andhadhun and Badlapur. The icy glide of Raghavan’s stories is matched by his implacable control. Kovelamudi, on the other hand, tries to heat things up, pushing Rao and Ranaut – both capable of great subtle work – into awkward excess. The one person who benefits from this is cinematographer Pankaj Kumar, who gets to shoot Christopher Doyle shimmers, Emmanuel Lubezki jitters and classic Universal black-and-white.

The passage where Bobby is spying on Keshav got me thinking how often Ranaut plays sexually empowered women. In Revolver Rani, in Rangoon, she’s the initiator, the aggressor. Her objects of desire feel the intensity of her gaze; so does the audience. This is where the actor is in her element – inhabiting characters who invite judgement, then gleefully calling her critics judgemental. In a manicured industry, she remains a fascinating question mark.

This review appeared in Mint.

Looney tunes: The moon in music

"If you want to write a song about the heart/ Think about the moon before you start," Paul Simon advised in 'Song About The Moon'. It’s not just the heart, though—the malleability of the moon as a symbol allows its use in an impressively wide range of songs. Musicians working in everything from country to ska to post-rock have linked the moon to loneliness, romance, madness, vampires, werewolves. It’s a quiet observer in Elvis Presley’s ethereal Sun Studio recording of 'Blue Moon' (“You saw me standing alone"), a confidant in Sting’s 'Sister Moon' (“I’d go out of my mind, but for you"). It’s a bad combination with all the rum Chuck Berry is drinking in 'Havana Moon'. It can be a portent of bad times ('Bad Moon Rising') or a marker of good times ('Dancing In The Moonlight').

Two famous classical pieces with “moonlight" in their title began life as something else. Claude Debussy’s 'Clair De Lune'—French for “light of the moon", from a poem by Paul Verlaine—was originally called 'Promenade Sentimentale'. But perhaps Debussy recognized that the crystalline notes suggested a lunar light, because he changed the name before the suite’s publication in 1905. To complicate matters, there’s another 'Clair De Lune', composed in 1887 by another Frenchman, Gabriel Fauré, which also takes its title from the Verlaine poem—though this is a vocal piece, while Debussy’s is for piano.

The actual title of Beethoven’s 'Moonlight Sonata'—one of the most famous pieces in Western classical music—is 'Sonata Quasi Una Fantasia'. It was only five years after his death that the nocturnal mood of the minor key beginning moved poet Ludwig Rellstab to describe it as “a boat, visiting, by moonlight, the primitive landscapes of Lake Lucerne". The name stuck.

Jazz is a nocturnal genre, and more than a few moon-related tracks appear in the canon. Glenn Miller’s 'Moonlight Serenade' is a classic swing ballad. 'How High The Moon' was a Broadway duet before Ella Fitzgerald made the song hers in a bebop-inflected 1947 session. Harold Arlen’s 'It’s Only A Paper Moon' also started as a Broadway tune, but over the years was passed from one jazz legend to another, two highlights being Fitzgerald’s vocal version and Coleman Hawkins’ instrumental.

Years later, Peter Bogdanovich thought of calling his 1973 film “Paper Moon" after the song. He rang up Orson Welles for advice. The older director responded: “That title is so good, you shouldn’t even make the picture, you should just release the title."

Moon music can also be challenging, cutting-edge. From as early as the fourth century till fairly recently, the word “lunatic" stood in for all kinds of mental illnesses. The word has its origins in the belief that the moon has the power to make people lose their minds—the Latin lunaticus is “moonstruck". No musician captured this idea better than the German Arnold Schoenberg, whose 'Pierrot Lunaire' (Pierrot Of The Moon) was a scandal when it was debuted in 1912 and is startling to hear even today. This is a German translation of French poems set to music by Schoenberg—though it may not be like any music you have heard. Voices soar and dive, never settling on any distinguishable melody. Instruments saw away at the edges, as if part of a whole different conversation. The effect is bracingly atonal—mondestrunken, moon-drunk. Unsurprisingly, Icelandic avant-pop singer Björk has covered 'Pierrot Lunaire' in concert.

The moon landing spawned its own musical legacy. In 1947, bandleader Les Baxter recorded Music Out Of The Moon, an album notable for combining an orchestra with the keening wail of a theremin, an electronic instrument which soon became synonymous with sci-fi cinema. This obscure record fulfilled its destiny, as it were, when Neil Armstrong took it along on cassette on the Apollo 11 mission and played it in space. Stepping out on the lunar surface after Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin played Frank Sinatra’s 'Fly Me To The Moon'—making it the first piece of music played on the moon.

Back on Earth, not everyone was excited about the space race. African-American poet and proto-rapper Gil Scott-Heron released, in 1970, the protest song 'Whitey On The Moon' ("No hot water, no toilets, no lights/ But whitey’s on the moon"). Decades later, R.E.M. weaved conspiracy theories surrounding the lunar landing into one of their most resonant compositions, 'Man On The Moon'.

Both Music Out Of The Moon’s 'Lunar Rhapsody' and 'Whitey’s On The Moon' feature in First Man, the 2018 Damien Chazelle film about Armstrong and Apollo 11 mission. The film’s score is composed by Justin Hurwitz, who—like Baxter—combines traditional instruments with a theremin (“We’re used to hearing a theremin in sci-fi movies and sort of B movies from the ‘50s and ‘60s," Hurwitz said in an interview. “What if we used it in a really expressive melodic way?"). The scene in which Armstrong, played by Ryan Gosling, walks on the moon is accompanied by an unforgettable shimmering score, the thrum of the strings suggesting the thrill of discovery, the theremin shading in a bit of mystery.

This is a far cry from the other famous movie moment with astronauts on the lunar surface: the “monolith" sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Stanley Kubrick scored this with the terrifying choral buzzing of György Ligeti’s 'Requiem'. Those with faint hearts can seek comfort in Johann Strauss’ 'Blue Danube Waltz', used for the moon landing scene in the same film. There’s no one kind of moon song.

This piece appeared in Mint Lounge.

The German who changed Hindi cinema

Josef Wirsching was an up-and-coming cinematographer in Germany in the early 1930s. As the Nazis were tightening their grip on the industry, India was coming into its own as a film-making nation. Wirsching had enjoyed working here in 1925, shooting the Indo-German silent film Prem Sanyas (The Light Of Asia) with actor Himanshu Rai.

In 1934, Rai and his wife, actor Devika Rani, founded their own studio, Bombay Talkies, eager to put to use what they had learnt on their visits to the German film industry. They also knew that an infusion of foreign talent would distinguish their productions from local competitors. So they invited Light Of Asia director Franz Osten, who brought down his team: Wirsching, production designer Karl von Spreti, lab technician Wilhelm Zolle. They joined the ranks of other émigrés seeking refuge from fascism in India: writer Willy Haas; Walter Kaufmann, composer of the All India Radio theme; Paul Zils, who helped grow non-fiction film in the country.

The Wirschings—Josef and his wife, Charlotte—settled down in Mumbai. Their lives took a difficult turn when World War II broke out. Josef Wirsching, a German national, was held in internment camps in Ahmednagar, Dehradun and Satara. In her programme note for an exhibition of Wirsching’s photographs at Serendipity Arts Festival in 2017, film historian and college professor Debashree Mukherjee writes of a photograph from the Dehradun camp of Josef drawing for his infant son.

As their star director of photography, Wirsching shot several seminal Bombay Talkies productions. He’s also credited with bringing German expressionism—characterized by heavy shadows and dramatic compositions—to Indian cinema. In the 1935 thriller Jawani Ki Hawa, Mukherjee writes, “Wirsching composed frames with huge pools of darkness, sharp highlights, eerie shadows, distorted angles, and sets which appear to overwhelm the humans. In his next few films for Bombay Talkies, Wirsching frequently framed characters through arches, doorways, and windows; favored eccentric camera angles; and masterfully molded light to create shadows and pools of darkness."

His expressionist style found its ideal showcase in Kamal Amrohi’s 1949 film, Mahal. The Gothic narrative gave him the chance to use shadows and canted angles; a look that would also influence the India noir films of the 1950s. Madhubala’s entry scene is a classic, but the whole film is really a tour de force of feverish photography. V.K. Murthy, a production assistant on that film, must have been taking notes; he later created similar Gothic magic on the Guru Dutt production Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam (1962). Wirsching died in 1967, before the completion of his sole colour film, Amrohi’s Pakeezah (1972), shot in CinemaScope and Eastmancolor, a landmark of romantic excess.

On YouTube you will find several films shot by Wirsching, though the prints don’t do justice to his artistry. His legacy has been kept alive by his grandsons, Josef and Georg. In 2017, they organized an exhibition of stills from his films and photographs taken by him, at the Serendipity Arts Festival in Goa. You can also see the photographs online, on the Wirsching Archive website. There’s Ashok Kumar as a smouldering, shirtless romantic star; Devika Rani lighting a cigarette between takes; Helen sharing a laugh on set with Josef and Charlotte; a charged still of Rani and Najmal Hussain, rumoured to be in love in real life, standing in a train compartment in Jawani Ki Hawa. It’s a whole forgotten world of glamour.

This photoessay appeared in Mint Lounge.

It’s open season on film critics

Earlier this week, the Hrithik Roshan-starrer Super 30 was screened for the press. There’s a scene in which a journalist tells a powerful coaching class director at a public gathering: “Media ko dhamki nahi chalega (threats to the media won’t fly)." It’s a mildly funny moment, but the laugh that echoed through the hall was immediate and knowing. It’s clear this particular crowd was thinking about Kangana Ranaut.

A couple of days earlier, the actor had been promoting her new movie, Judgmentall Hai Kya, in Mumbai. In an amateur video of the event that circulated on social media, Ranaut is about to be asked a question by PTI reporter Justin Rao. He’s barely introduced himself when Ranaut rounds on him. “Justin, you’ve become my enemy now," she says. “You’re writing terrible things, dirty things. You bashed my film Manikarnika…" Rao defends himself, saying, “You cannot intimidate a journalist because you’re in a position of power here."

A little later, Ranaut, speaking off the cuff as she always does, says something revealing. “You spent three hours in my van," she tells Rao. “You are a friend…"

The implication here is that Rao, having been given unusually prolonged access to a star, was expected to behave like a “friend" and not like a critic. Rajeev Masand, a well-known critic and an entertainment journalist, says the misconception exists on both sides. “I think many journalists make the mistake of thinking actors (and filmmakers) are their friends," he wrote over email. “Because you see them frequently on assignment, share a laugh or two, or find yourself being wooed by them to portray them in a glowing light does not mean they’re friends."

Ranaut’s accusation will be familiar to anyone who’s worked in Indian film journalism. I gave you my time; you owe me. The implied quid pro quo extends to other areas as well. Organizers of press shows have been known to tell critics that they could go ahead and post their reviews if they were positive, but should hold on till Friday if they didn’t like the film. And in an 8 July circular, the Tamil Film Producers’ Council Consulting Union and South Indian Film Media PRO Union said they would bar critics who gave “unnecessarily harsh reviews" from all film-related events (the decision has since been rescinded).

Indian film critics had a right to feel under siege this past week. A couple of days before the circular appeared, director Sandeep Reddy Vanga was interviewed for the website Film Companion. Responding to Anupama Chopra’s question about the perceived misogyny of his film Kabir Singh, he described the criticism as “pseudo", brought up Masand’s review and called him a “fat guy", and characterized critics as “parasites" and a bigger threat to the industry than piracy. “These guys should reinforce our work," he says, “they should not hamper it." You spent three hours in my film!

“Pseudo" was also a term used by Ranaut—attached to both “liberal" and “journalist"—in a video shared by her sister, Rangoli Chandel, on Twitter on 11 July. She begins by thanking members of the press who’ve supported her career, before describing an unspecified few as “termites", “deshdrohi (anti-national)" and “nalayak (unworthy)".

There’s always been tension between the film industry and those covering it. Directors whose films aren’t received well tend to take refuge in box-office numbers, as Vanga did in the Film Companion interview (“The biggest misconception both film professionals and the public at large continue to have is that critics are expected to reflect popular public opinion," says Masand). Ranaut and Vanga’s hostility, though, suggests we may be moving onto dangerous new ground, where powerful movie stars could effectively dox those who criticize their work.

No one likes to have their work taken apart—especially if it’s done ineptly or viciously. But to dismiss criticism that bites, or simply disagrees and dissects, doesn’t augur well for the development of the form. In a mass medium like cinema, popular success isn’t a great predictor of quality. A certain amount of push and pull between creators and critics—and among critics, as we saw with Article 15—can only result in better films. As American reviewer Pauline Kael once said, “In the arts, the critic is the only independent source of information. The rest is advertising."

This piece appeared in Mint.

Super 30: Review

Trust Indian directors not to trust their material. You could hand them Casablanca and they’d go, this is fine but it’s missing a fight scene and why are people crying in the big musical number? Super 30 is on track as long as it steadily plugs away at the real life story of a teacher in Bihar who coaches underprivileged children for the IIT-JEE examination. But when the film starts to doubt whether this is enough, it comes undone.

We first meet Anand Kumar (Hrithik Roshan) as a prodigious academic talent in Patna. He's less adept on a human level, looking for the golden ratio in his girlfriend’s face and finds her wanting, a scene which recalls the brusque bookishness of John Nash in A Beautiful Mind (another trick borrowed from Ron Howard’s film is scribbles on a blackboard crystallizing and hanging in the air to present an answer). When he’s accepted at Cambridge, his postman father tries desperately to gather the money to send him there. But this brings on a fatal heart attack, and Anand is forced to sell papad door to door, his Cambridge acceptance letter becoming wrapping paper in one mawkish scene.

When coaching institute director Lallan (Aditya Shrivastava) comes across Anand, he recognizes the prize-winning student he’d once met and hires him to teach students preparing for the IIT-JEE exam. Soon, Anand is a star professor, earning more than he can spend. Will he stray from the light? Turns out it’s nothing that a poor student working out math problems in between work shifts and a revelatory rickshaw ride can’t fix. It’s a little strange to have the moral climate of a 1950s Raj Kapoor film in 2019, with rickshaw-operators handing out life lessons and the corrupt Lallan doing everything but revealing a forked tail from his first scene.

Anand opens his own coaching centre, aimed at helping students whose families can’t afford school or coaching prepare for IIT-JEE. He accepts 30 students, houses, feeds and teaches them. It’s here that the film starts to reach, to hype up its material. There’s a competition with Lallan’s coaching centre with a contrived twist at the end. There’s a song sequence in the classroom that needs Anurag Basu’s direction (Ajay-Atul’s soundtrack and score are tuneful, but turned up much too loud and used indiscriminately). There are back-to-back scenes with an almost comical intensity – the first with the wind rattling the tin walls of the classroom as Lallan tries to intimidate the students, the second with Anand turning up in the middle of the night to yell at his charges that they have nothing and therefore have nothing to lose.

Things really start to unravel after the intermission. There’s a protracted sequence where the students apply their science skills to foil an armed attack; it’ll bring back memories of Home Alone even as you wonder why screenwriter Sanjeev Dutta and director Vikas Bahl are obscuring their cracker story with kids’ film juvenilia. Almost as farfetched – and indicative of the film’s simplistic outlook – is Anand’s plan to get his students to overcome their nervousness about speaking English. They’re told to perform a skit of their own devising in public without uttering a word in Hindi – anyone who refuses won’t be allowed back. It ends up working, with the class banding together and winning over an initially mocking crowd. There’s something terribly false about this moment – a celebration of Anand’s unorthodoxy at the expense of the dignity of the kids.

In last year’s Hichki, schoolteacher Rani Mukherjee is placed in charge of a classroom of children from low-income families. The film was as unsubtle as Super 30, but it did make the effort of giving the students distinct personalities and quirks and talents. In Bahl’s film, the IIT aspirants only exist be saved by Anand, not to show any individual sparks of their own. We’re told the names of some, their tragic circumstances and aspirations, but there’s little effort expended in making them memorable.

Super 30, then, is less about the 30, more about the one. That one has a heavy Bihari accent, which I won’t speak to the authenticity of, except to say it sounds like an actor trying with every fiber of his being to sound Bihari. The second hurdle, if you’re trying to appreciate Roshan’s performance, is his darker-than-usual complexion – Bollywood shorthand for “person from low-income household"; unforgivable yet shamefully common. There are half a dozen actors who’d have fit the part better, but Roshan, at least in the early stages, isn’t as distractingly emotive as he can sometimes be, and there’s a reserve to his Anand that pulls back some of the sentimentality.

This is Bahl’s fourth film as director, and his first release after allegations of sexual assault were made against him by a former employee (he was cleared by an Internal Complaints Committee). If Super 30 had told its story straight, it might have had something revealing to say about coaching class culture, Kumar’s eccentric methods, and the psychology of these students. Instead, Bahl makes a grab for Akshay Kumar territory, all good intentions and no subtext. The smarts of Queen seem very far away now.

This review appeared in Mint.

Anima instinct

Paul Thomas Anderson has been using music videos as a sketchpad between features from as far back as Michael Penn’s "Try" in 1997. In recent years, he has stepped up the frequency. Between Junun (2015) and his last film, Phantom Thread (2017), he directed videos for three songs each by Radiohead, Haim and Joanna Newsom: simple ideas, but low-key brilliant, especially the single-take "Right Now".

Now, Anderson, with his friend Thom Yorke, is stretching out. The Radiohead singer has a new solo album, Anima. Three tracks from this have been woven by Anderson into a 15-minute short film, also called Anima (streaming on Netflix). Unlike the videos he has made these last few years, this one is more elaborate. It begins with Yorke on the subway, nodding off. The passengers around him start convulsing in unison, like a dance troupe in a lucid dream. The platform he alights on soon turns into a series of increasingly surreal sets, with Yorke flung about, dodging dancers and singing “I can’t breathe" over electronic thumps (the choreographer is Damien Jalet, who worked on Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria, which Yorke had scored).

A clue on how to view Anima can be found in the film’s trailer, which describes it as a “one-reeler"—shorts of around 12 minutes, usually comedies, popular in the silent era. Yorke’s mugging has shades of “little guy" comics like Chaplin and Keaton, something Anderson encouraged (“He’s amazing with his body—very, very physical," Anderson said in an interview. “I just kept saying, ‘More Buster Keaton, more Buster Keaton!’"). There’s a scene out of Keaton’s Steamboat Bill, Jr, with Yorke at a 70-degree angle, braced against a wind. There are also more modern films that seem to flit through Anderson’s mind; the romantic scene in the streets at night echoes the lurching movements of Denis Lavant and Juliette Binoche in Leos Carax’s The Lovers On The Bridge.

A final word of praise for the person behind the camera. Cinematographer Darius Khondji’s credits include My Blueberry Nights, Midnight In Paris, Amour, The Lost City Of Z and the video for Madonna’s "Frozen". He’s a master of light—the ray of sun that illuminates Yorke’s face at the end is a typically Khondji frame. And he has never worked with Anderson before this, which raises the immensely exciting possibility of a feature film collaboration between the two.

This piece appeared in Mint Lounge.

Hirokazu Kore-eda’s fragile families

How do you assemble your own Hirokazu Kore-eda film? Start with absent fathers, or ones who think they’re doing a better job than they actually are. Add to this food, conversation, buried secrets, children in tough spots, local rituals, lots of natural light, makeshift families, more food. Garnish with humour. Set in Japan.

Of course, this is easier said than done. You can’t assemble a Kore-eda, any more than you can assemble a Wes Anderson or a Paolo Sorrentino. At best, you can disassemble him, and try and figure out why he’s so successful at recombining a few simple elements in film after memorable film (the same can be asked of his Korean contemporary Hong Sang-soo).

Kore-eda started in the early 1990s, making documentaries initially, then moving to fiction with the haunting Maborosi (1995). He was nominated for the Palme d’Or, the top award at the Cannes Film Festival, for Distance (2001) and then for Nobody Knows (2004), Like Father, Like Son (2013) and Our Little Sister (2015).

In 2018, Kore-eda finally won the Palme for Shoplifters. The film is in cinemas this week, part of a new initiative, backed by BookMyShow and PVR Pictures, called Vkaao Gems—limited releases of acclaimed international features across Delhi NCR, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Kochi, Chennai, Pune, Kolkata and Hyderabad. The film begins with a couple, Osamu (Lily Franky, a Kore-eda regular) and Nobuyo (Sakura Ando), who chance upon a young girl, alone on a cold winter’s night. They can’t go to the police; they are shoplifters, robbing department stores and running other small hustles to get by. So they take her home, and soon she’s part of the family, living in a cramped apartment with pensioner Hatsue (the late Kirin Kiki, another Kore-eda favourite), hostess Aki (Mayu Matsuoka) and Shota (Kairi Jō), Osamu’s main accomplice in robberies.

Because we aren’t told how these characters are related to each other, there’s an underlying tension to the film. It’s possible that Kore-eda’s previous venture—The Third Murder (2017), a rare excursion into thriller territory—rubbed off on this film, both in the parcelling out of information and the cold splash of the revelations. Yet Shoplifters is also warm and winsome, Franky’s goofiness nicely balancing out Ando’s reserve (the scene where they are eating cold noodles and she decides to jump him is note-perfect in its friendly sensuousness).

The questions that underpin Shoplifters are pet Kore-eda themes: What constitutes a family, and how much do blood relations count for? In Hana (2006), a samurai forms a familial unit with a widow and her young son, while the man he’s supposed to kill lives happily with another widow and her boy. In Like Father, Like Son, a businessman discovers that his child was swapped at birth with another family’s boy. He pushes them to allow the boys to swap households for a few months. Our Little Sister sees a young girl invited to stay with her grown-up half-sisters after their father dies; four half-siblings are forced to survive on their own when their mother abandons them in Nobody Knows. Two real brothers are separated in I Wish (2011)—one living with the mother, another with the father. Even in an atypical Kore-eda film like The Third Murder, there’s a scene with a daughter telling off her dad (“All of a sudden, you sound like a real father").

Perhaps the stormy childhoods in his films stem from the director’s own life. In a revealing moment in a 2005 interview to Indiewire, he responds to a question on what his own childhood was like with “Normal". Questioned further, however, he describes a hardscrabble existence, saying they were “pretty poor" and recalling the difficulties his father had in finding work after returning from three years in a Siberian labour camp. In a more recent interview, to Sight & Sound, he explained why the boy in Shoplifters carves out his own space in his closet. “The house that we used in the film is very similar to the house where I lived until I was 9…and there were six of us who used to live in that small house. So I used to live in the cupboard, and I wanted the story to be from the point of view of the boy who slept in that cupboard."

Nearly every Kore-eda film is touched by death: the passing of the father that sets the plot in motion in Hana and Our Little Sister; the killing that gives The Third Murder its title; the suicides in Maborosi and Distance; the yearly remembrance of the lost son in Still Walking (made not long after his own mother died); and the cruellest death of all, little Yuki in Nobody Knows. That’s a death toll worthy of Bergman, though the treatment couldn’t be more different. Still, it’s no wonder that sometimes he goes in the opposite direction and makes entire films that pass without a dark cloud in the sky. Our Little Sister is 2 hours of sibling chatter, near-constant eating and good vibes. And there’s the blithe Hana—the closest Kore-eda has come to an outright comedy—in which a reluctant samurai named Sōza (Junichi Okada) traces the killer of his father to a little village in 18th century Genroku-era Japan, but instead of taking revenge ends up settling down, opening a preschool and shyly falling in love. Sōza’s gradual rejection of the brutal samurai code is slyly juxtaposed with the legend of the “47 ronin", a group of samurai who happen to be hiding out in the same village, and who can’t see beyond the need for revenge.

Kore-eda frequently draws comparisons with Yasujirō Ozu, the Japanese master whose best-known films are gentle ruminations on relationships, family, life and death. Kore-eda has stated that his style is closer to that of Mikio Naruse–another Japanese legend—and British film-maker Ken Loach. What of his contemporaries? Edward Yang, the Taiwanese director of Yi Yi and A Brighter Summer Day, who died in 2007, had a similar measured pace and close observational style. There’s a less obvious comparison with Richard Linklater, who has a similar knack of filming everyday situations without affectation (Boyhood, especially, is in the key of Kore-eda). No wonder, then, that the first thing Kore-eda did after winning the Palme d’Or was fly to New York and prevail upon Linklater’s leading man, Ethan Hawke, to star in his next film.

La Verite will be the first film Kore-eda has made in another language. Besides Hawke, he has managed to rope in French cinema royalty in Juliette Binoche and Catherine Deneuve. Steven Spielberg, another chronicler of absent dads, has bought the rights to Like Father, Like Son. If you’re wondering what all the fuss is about, you can start with Shoplifters this weekend.

This piece appeared in Mint Lounge.

Spider-Man: Far From Home: Review

It’s mildly disorienting to go from watching Euphoria to Spider-Man: Far From Home. The teens in Euphoria attend school in today’s America, and are about the same age as those in Spider-Man, but they may as well inhabit parallel universes. On the HBO show, they’re cutting themselves and doing fentanyl and listening to Migos. In the Marvel movie, they’re fretting about holding hands and the soundtrack is the Go-Go’s and Whitney Houston.

The reason Euphoria even occurred to me is that Zendaya, who plays MJ, the human equivalent of a shrug, in the Spider-Man films, headlines the HBO show (incredibly well, by the way). I’m not saying Far From Home need be anywhere as extreme as the series to qualify as a convincing snapshot of contemporary American youth, but couldn’t it at least match up to its milder ‘80s inspiration? The first solo Spider-Man film with Tom Holland, 2017’s Homecoming, was instantly recognisable as a John Hughes tale in the guise of a superhero movie. But even though that film and Far From Home have all the Hughes stereotypes (bouncy soundtrack, ridiculous authority figures), the emotional messiness of The Breakfast Club is missing, replaced by a vague, toothless nostalgia.

There have been six Spider-Man films since the initial Sam Raimi-Tobey Maguire team-up in 2002, so there isn’t a high school movie trope that’s gone entirely untouched. Writers Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers expand on an idea from the last film, where Peter Parker travels with the school’s academic decathlon team to Washington. In Far From Home, Peter heads to Europe with his class, mind set on asking MJ out. He’s dodging phone calls from Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson), who’s short of Avengers – though there’s a new superhero on the scene, an earthling from another reality (you can read the mention of a “multiverse" as either a respectful nod to last year’s animated Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse or a futile attempt to borrow some of its swagger).

The new hero – christened “Mysterio" after a news report on Italian TV – turns out to be more than competent, and more than a little like Tony Stark to Peter’s mentor-bereft eyes. Jake Gyllenhaal makes the most of a faintly ridiculous role, channelling Tony’s wiseass authority and paternal attitude towards Peter, before – this surely can’t come as a surprise – cutting loose as a cackling villain. His reasons for doing so are explained in one loud, hurried scene, as if we won’t notice the explanation stinks if it scurries past.

The school trip portions are lightly likeable: Holland and Zendaya are charming apart and together. Marisa Tomei is a delight as Aunt May – think of how much fun she’d have been as Pepper Potts. Despite their innocuousness, the most successful passages in the film are the ones untethered from the superhero storyline; the worst are when Fury and Maria Hill are shoehorned in. Everything’s on a low simmer – energy, invention, emotional stakes. Even before a post-credits scene drives the point home, this film feels like the MCU in vacation mode.

This review appeared in Mint.

Deadwood: The Movie: Review

In 2006, after two seasons of Shakespearean cussing and near-perfection, Deadwood was starting on a third. But HBO surprised everyone by not renewing the show, turning that season into a forced farewell to Al Swearengen (Ian McShane), Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant) and other residents of the frontier town of Deadwood, South Dakota, so carefully sketched by showrunner David Milch over 36 episodes.

Unlike The Sopranos and The Wire, the other two shows that made HBO’s reputation, Deadwood was a critical favourite that never quite became a cultural phenomenon. Still, it’s every bit as astonishing an example of world building; by the third season, just having a character walk down a street could bring half a dozen storylines into play. In the initial years after cancellation, fans were hopeful of a renewal, but none came. Then, after years of steady rumours, HBO greenlit a Deadwood movie with the original cast in 2018.

That movie is now on Hotstar (as is the series), and is—for those who mourned the awkward end—something like a benediction. It’s directed by series veteran Daniel Minahan and written by Milch in that unmistakable, filthy, burnished tone that sets Deadwood apart from pretty much any period Western ever made. The narrative picks up in 1889, 10 years after the series ended. Time has cooled the antagonistic relationship between Marshal Bullock and former pimp and power broker Swearengen, and they band together when an old enemy rides into town: George Hearst, the businessman who tormented the town in seasons 2 and 3 and is now back as a senator.

In an age where ambitious shows are increasingly labelled “cinematic", the Deadwood movie feels like a long, excellent episode of TV. This isn’t a slight, just an acknowledgment that its virtues are the ones associated with medium: efficiency, clarity, unfussiness, and the kind of emotional weight that comes from following characters over a length of time. It’s touching and rather sad to see everyone older—Al is particularly difficult to recognize as the fearsome man he used to be—and at the stage where they can regret but not change the course of their lives. Minahan makes beautiful use of the second-long flashbacks which appear in scenes involving the same characters, as if we had momentarily entered their minds.

This would seem to be the happy ending few creators get, but, in Milch’s case, it’s bittersweet. Earlier this year, it was revealed that before he began writing the movie, he found out he had Alzheimer’s. It’s a particularly Deadwoodian mixture of sorrow and triumph. There’s a scene with the town doctor (Brad Dourif) and Al talking about his failing health. “Time flows, and it stops," the medic says gently. “It’s the dispatch I find inglorious," his companion replies, sounding like the old Al for a second. “The whole delusory fucking self-importance." When you think of Milch writing this scene, his own mortality staring him in the face, it makes the Deadwood movie almost unbearably moving.

This piece appeared in Mint Lounge.

Article 15: Review

As IPS officer Ayan Ranjan (Ayushmann Khurrana) is driven to the small Uttar Pradesh town of Lalgaon to begin his new posting, the opening credits roll and we hear a familiar nasal voice: “How many roads must a man walk down, before you call him a man?" Now, there’s no denying that Blowin’ in the Wind is the squarest soundtrack choice imaginable. At the same time, Ayan is just the sort of young man who’d like the song – idealistic, more comfortable speaking English than Hindi, woke but not terribly well-informed. You can picture him on the lawns of St Stephens, strumming a guitar and singing it to his activist girlfriend.

No sooner does Ayan turn off the song, though, than the film gets down to business. He asks the officers with him to pick up some mineral water; they hesitate, then explain they’re passing through a Pasi neighbourhood – chhoti jaat, low caste. This confirms what we already suspect: that caste is the cauldron in which this film will stew. A pre-credits scene had shown flashes of the incident that'll reverberate through the film – the rape and murder of two teenage girls near Lalgaon. We don’t know yet that they’re Dalit, but there’s a pointed visual of an Ambedkar statue, which is indication enough.

The scene with Ayan and the officers stumbling through the morning mist is eerily beautiful, until we see their faces crumple. This slow approach to the reveal of the bodies hanging from a tree is a rare flourish in a film that mostly keeps its head down and accumulates instead of trying to dress up its horrors. There’s something very satisfying about the way director Anubhav Sinha and his co-writer, Gaurav Solanki, pile detail upon detail until the screen becomes heavy with suggestion.

Every now and then, Sinha releases the pressure. In a mordantly funny scene, Ayan asks his colleagues which caste they belong to. The replies come immediately and without embarrassment: Thakur, Rajput, Kayastha; even the Dalit officer, Jatav (Kumud Mishra), points out that he’s higher than Pasi. Ayan explodes at his men in frustration and, later, pins up a copy of Article 15 of the Constitution, which prohibits discrimination on several grounds, including caste. The most interesting beat in the scene to me is when Ayan asks which caste he himself is. He isn’t being insincere – he can afford not to know, a side-benefit of being upper-caste. Even as Ayan indicts everyone around him for their caste-bound gaze, the film is subtly indicating his caste privilege.

It turns out there was a third girl who escaped the night the other two were murdered. Ayan becomes determined to find her, possibly alive. His best chance is to search a large swamp-like area – a detail which should confirm beyond doubt that the model for this film is Alan Parker’s Mississippi Burning (1988), racism replaced by casteism. But many of the upper-caste officers refuse to enter the swamp and the Dalit policemen are on strike, responding to a call by a local leader, Nishad. Given how gingerly Hindi films usually treat caste, it’s a welcome change to have one point to its all-pervasiveness, the ways it underpins every aspect of life in India.

Though he may have arisen out of the need to provide a counterbalance for the film’s Brahmin protagonist, Nishad becomes fascinating in his own right through some deft writing and the controlled hurt of Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub. The ensemble playing is excellent, especially Manoj Pahwa, who displays surprising reserves of ferocity as circle office Brahmadatt. Khurrana’s Ayan is the stable mean of Manoj Bajpayee in Shool and Rajkummar Rao in Newton. With his inherent modesty as a lead performer and his seeming inability to be boring in front of the camera, Khurrana continues to be one of the most watchable actors in Hindi cinema today.

With the impassioned Mulk (2017), and now this film, Sinha seems to have turned a corner in his work. His approach here reminds me of the Hansal Mehta of Shahid: steady, yet searing and humane. Nishad calls his strike because three Dalit men are tied up and flogged in the street. Sinha gives the audience the image it’ll recognise – a recreation of the Una atrocity – then makes the pain more intimate, showing the men screaming in agony in the police station. Later in the film, as we look down at an overflowing manhole, the oily surface is broken by a human head emerging. Sinha shoots this in slow motion, letting the moment linger. The man deposits debris on the side, takes a breath and disappears into the black murk again. It’s a gut-kick of an image. Article 15 might not comfort the afflicted, but there’s every chance it will afflict the comfortable.

This review appeared in Mint.

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

The continuing story of Kamini Kaushal

Last weekend, Indian Twitter users put everything aside to furiously debate a film which many hadn’t even seen. Sandeep Reddy Vanga’s Kabir Singh struck its detractors as cruel and cavalier in the titular character’s treatment of his partner. Its supporters, meanwhile, argued that cruel and cavalier characters exist in life, so why not in cinema? Raanjhanaa (2013) was brought up, and Raging Bull (1980), and gender indices in Telugu-speaking regions.

In all the excitement, it isn’t surprising that little attention was paid to the actor playing Kabir Singh’s grandmother. I missed her name in the opening credits and spent the rest of the film wondering if I ought to recognize this actor who was a lot more convincing as a Punjabi dadi than Shahid Kapoor and Kiara Advani were as Punjabi lovers. The end credits supplied a surprising answer: Kamini Kaushal. Neecha Nagar Kamini Kaushal? The 1940s star?

Kaushal is 92 years old. She has been in films since 1946. That’s 73 years as an actor—astonishing when you consider Ashok Kumar’s career spanned 61 years and Dev Anand’s 65. Her first film as an adult (she acted in a production called The Tragedy when she was 8 or 9) was a landmark: Chetan Anand’s 1946 social realist drama, Neecha Nagar, in which she played the idealistic sister of the even more idealistic Gandhian protagonist. It screened at the first Cannes Film Festival and won the top prize (then called the Grand Prix), the only Indian film to have done so till date.

In the 1940s and early 1950s, Kaushal was a considerable star: billed only after Nargis in Aag (1948), Raj Kapoor’s directorial debut; starring with Dev Anand in Ziddi (1948) and with Dilip Kumar in Shabnam (1949) and Arzoo (1950). She was important enough, the story goes, for Subodh Mukherjee, head of Filmistan studio, to reject a little-known singer named Lata Mangeshkar on the grounds that her “squeaky" voice wouldn’t suit Kaushal (Mangeshkar ended up singing for her in Ziddi). She is a rare female actor who continued working after marriage, taking breaks to raise her children. Her turn in Bimal Roy’s Biraj Bahu (1954) won her acclaim, but with Nargis, Nutan, Meena Kumari and Madhubala getting the plum roles, her star began to wane. By 1965, she was playing mother to Manoj Kumar, only 10 years younger, in Shaheed.

Kaushal is probably the only Hindi film actor who started her career in the 1940s and is still working (comedian Jagdeep might come closest, starting as a child artist in 1950—he’s wonderful as Elaichi, Guru Dutt’s sidekick, in 1954’s Aar-Paar—and continuing till 2012). It’s also likely that Kaushal is the only actor with both a pre-independence movie credit and one in 2019. She was born in Lahore in 1927, as were her Neecha Nagar director and co-star, Chetan and Uma Anand (Rafi Peer, who plays the film’s antagonist, was from Rawalpindi, and stayed in Pakistan after Partition). It’s astonishing to think of the breadth of a career that takes in silent cinema, independence, Partition, the first colour film, Ismat Chughtai and Shamshad Begum and Deepika Padukone, bans imposed and lifted and imposed again on Pakistani artists.

If you are looking to learn more about Kaushal’s life and work, there’s little to go on. There are a few print and TV interviews—mostly exercises in trivia, with the exception of the TV series Guftagoo—and no critical writing. Some films from her heyday of the late 1940s and early 1950s are on YouTube, but in terrible prints (Neecha Nagar, which is written about every year when Cannes comes around, still doesn’t exist as a proper DVD or streaming print).

Thankfully, Kaushal’s film-related memories have been recorded for posterity in at least one place. She was the first person interviewed for the Film Heritage Foundation’s (FHF’s) oral histories initiative, done in collaboration with The Academy Motion Picture, Arts and Sciences. Shivendra Singh Dungarpur, FHF’s founder-director, conducted the interview—part of an ongoing series that includes Amitabh Bachchan, Mani Ratnam and several others. It will eventually be available for anyone looking to access it for research, or simply to understand what it’s like to be directed by Bimal Roy and, more than half a century later, by Rohit Shetty.

This piece appeared in Mint Lounge.

Kabir Singh: Review

The bar for grand masochistic gestures by self-pitying men in Indian films is set pretty high. All credit, then, to Kabir Singh for finding creative new ways for its eponymous hero to express his terrible sadness after his girlfriend marries someone else. In one scene, Kabir (Shahid Kapoor), bare-chested and drunk, in the midst of getting yelled at by his friend, grabs an electric razor and starts shaving his undercarriage. He isn’t looking down, though, and his macho posturing is soon interrupted by a red stain spreading across his pyjamas. They say you shouldn’t try gardening under the influence.

They also say you shouldn’t perform surgeries under the influence. Kabir does this too, and though there are eventual consequences, I’m not sure writer-director Sandeep Reddy Vanga (remaking his Telugu film Arjun Reddy) entirely disapproves. I’ll come to that – more about our charming protagonist first. In the film's opening minutes, he hooks up with a soon-to-be-married woman. No problem, two consenting adults, etc., but then she says she isn’t comfortable and asks him to stop. Kabir grabs a knife and tells her to continue undressing. Her horror lasts a few seconds before a song on the radio breaks in comically, but it’s a jarring – and revealing – note to start on.

The same need to control, to impose his will on a situation, is there from the moment Kabir lays eyes on first-year med student Preeti (Kiara Advani) and decides he likes her. His first move is to warn her male batch-mates that she’s off-limits for them. He then barges into her classroom, asks what the lesson is, says he’ll teach her (he’s in his final year, and a university topper), and takes her away. This happens several times. On another occasion, he orders her to sit at the front of the class, then gets a “healthy" girl to sit with her, decreeing that the two of them will now be roommates (thin gossipy girls will apparently distract her from her studies). She injures her leg; he moves her into his hostel room.

When control is wrested from Kabir, all hell breaks loose. A student from a rival college with a grudge against him molests Preeti during Holi celebrations. Kabir finds out and beats the boy’s face bloody in a crowded classroom. There’s the strangest exchange after, with Kabir kneeling beside him, lighting his cigarette and making him promise that he won’t lay a hand on her again, since he won’t be around to protect her when he passes out. This is how important control is to Kabir: he’ll entrust the safety of the woman he loves to her oppressor and his enemy as long as it appears like he’s handled the situation as a man should.

Preeti’s timidity and seeming disinclination to think for herself only makes Kabir appear more dominant. It’s almost a full hour before she utters a full sentence, and it’s “What do you see in me?" Preeti may as well be a Stepford Girlfriend, so passive is Advani’s performance in those early scenes. When her father forbids their marriage – there’s a fleeting mention of different castes – she comes alive for one hot minute and it’s so unbearable to Kabir that he slaps her (there’s a lot of slapping in this film).

Kabir’s rages aren’t about anything (like Jimmy Porter in Look Back in Anger), nor are they funny (like Dev D’s in the Anurag Kashyap film) or revealing. He’s always angry with someone: friends, girlfriends, family, co-workers. When he chases a domestic worker down several flights of stairs for breaking a glass, the scene is played for comedy, not as evidence as a cruel, disturbed mind. And yet, no matter how badly he behaves, Kabir is a hero in the film’s eyes – beloved of his nursing staff, endlessly attractive to women, supported by his loyal friend. It’s a crucial difference between this film and Dev.D, which had an equally destructive protagonist but saw him for the pathetic weakling he was.

There’s a bang-smash quality to Vanga’s direction which at times lifts scenes above the crude material. When Kabir’s elder brother tries to talk him out of his funk and the two end up scrapping, the situation's a cliché, yet effective. Had Preeti shown some fight too, this might have been a different film, less in thrall of the angry doc. Instead, it takes nearly three hours for Kabir to admit that he has a problem, whereupon he’s immediately rewarded. “Go to the depth of anything and you get zero," we’re warned early on. In this case, it’s absolutely true.

This review appeared in Mint.

Men in Black: International: Review

Call me old-fashioned, but when I sit down for a movie that costs more than 100 million dollars and has little apparent artistic ambition, the least I’m hoping for is that my heart rate be jogged and my senses agitated. I’d take abject failure over bland competence, and Men in Black: International – 110 million dollars’ worth of amiable – is squarely in the second category.

A young girl named Molly watches from the window as MIB agents neuralyze her parents after an alien visits their home. Instead of scarring her for life, it gives her a purpose: she wants to be the one in a black suit, making others forget what they saw. Years later, Molly (Tessa Thompson) brazens her way into MIB headquarters, where she impresses head agent O (Emma Thompson) enough to get a try-out. Christened Agent M, she’s sent to MIB’s London office, where she ends up assisting Agent H (Chris Hemsworth), who – like any good loose cannon – tells her he works alone and doesn’t need a partner. Soon, they’re in possession of an alien weapon and being hunted by a pair of paranormal twins and the MIB itself.

Thompson and Hemsworth worked well together in Thor: Ragnarok, but their chemistry here isn’t as crackling. When H delightedly tells M, after they talk their way out of a tight spot, that they were “riffing", it made me smile sadly at the gulf between Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn completing each other's sentences in Bringing Up Baby and the awkward comedy in the scene before. Part of the reason might be that the workmanlike F Gary Gray is in charge; it had taken talented comic directors like Taika Waititi and Paul Feig to draw out Hemsworth’s goofiness in Ragnarok and Ghostbusters. It’s notable that the one person who’s consistently funny in the film – Kumail Nanjiani as the voice of a chess pawn who dedicates himself to M – is someone who does it for a living and might not have needed direction as much as the two stars.

There’s one big twist in the movie, but writers Art Marcum and Matt Holloway don’t attempt to make it convincing; they just introduce it at the end and hope we’ll go along. It doesn’t really matter – only a pedant would insist on an MIB film having an airtight plot. What does grate is the film’s inability to grasp its own bland ineffectualness. Ten minutes after the screening, I was struggling to recall entire scenes, subplots. It’s as if the film had come with its own neuralyzer.

This review appeared in Mint.

Big Thief’s otherworldly sound

There has always been a place in pop music for a ghostly female vocalist. In the 1960s, it was the intimate yé-yé sound of Françoise Hardy; a decade later, Vashti Bunyan’s underappreciated Just Another Diamond Day. And in the 1990s, there was the stately hush of the Cowboy Junkies’ Margo Timmins and the aching haze of Mazzy Star frontwoman Hope Sandoval. To this august list we can now add Big Thief’s guitarist-vocalist Adrianne Lenker, whose delicately frayed singing shades in complex colours on the band’s third album, UFOF.

Right from the first track, there’s a tension built into this album that belies its gentle folkie surface. The first word sung in "Contact" is 'Jodi'—possibly a reference to Jodie Foster, who appeared in the 1997 film Contact as a scientist convinced of extraterrestrial life. The track gets eerier (“She gives me gills/ helps me forgive the pills") until it suddenly cracks, closing with agitated guitar and muted but hair-raising screams.

This title track also alludes to the otherworldly—“UFOF", it turns out, is “UFO friend". But the lyrics quickly turn from a literal reading (“She’s taking up root in the sky") to something more intimate. Hovering above dappled guitars and gentle drumming, Lenker whispers: “There will soon be proof/ That there is no alien/ Just a system of truth and lies/ The reason, the language/ And the law of attraction." It’s the closest a song has come to the feeling bottled in Terrence Malick’s film The Tree Of Life, at once mysterious, spiritual, sad and sensuous.

Buck Meek on guitar, Max Oleartchik on bass and James Krivchenia on drums provide tasteful support, but Lenker’s voice is the lead instrument, warbly and brittle on "Orange", country-twanged and steady on "Cattails". Most of the songs carry traces of her difficult childhood—her family was part of a religious cult for the first four years of her life—and none are entirely free of sadness. “No one can be my man, be my man, be my man," she repeats, as if trying to ward off a spirit, on From, which also appeared on her solo album, abysskiss. When she sings “Couldn’t tell for sure/Where the screaming sound/ Was coming from", her voice jerks up violently, then returns to a hush—but that split second contains a world of pain.

In an indie scene awash with male auteur voices, UFOF is a feminine outlier: Lenker sings all the songs, most of which are addressed to, or are about, female characters—Jodi, Caroline, Violet, Betsy. On Jenni, the titular character, she of the “vacant eye" and “skin so bare", might just be the UFO friend previously unnamed. As with the title track, the physical mixes with the otherworldly here, the nervous repetition of “Too hot to breathe" giving way to “The portal forms/ She calls me through", all of it carrying the delicate suggestion of burgeoning sexuality.

Big Thief’s sound, situated at the cross-section of country and confessional folk, hasn’t varied much over their three albums. Perhaps the only thing that separates UFOF from Masterpiece (2016) and Capacity (2017) is the wistfulness that marks even the sunniest songs on the album. Yet, even with its muted traumas, this is ultimately a hopeful record. The narrator in "Cattails" will be there on the double to help her struggling friend. The alien friend will spirit away for love. Even the death wish of "Terminal Paradise" has a silver lining: “I will blossom in your sail."

This piece appeared in Mint Lounge. 

Bharat: Review

Films can creep up on you sometimes. For 130-odd minutes, Bharat trundles along, sometimes diverting, often annoying, mostly inessential. But then, out of nowhere, it turns into a meditation on the lingering scars of Partition. This is the great enduring theme of Hindi cinema, usually cloaked in metaphor. Here, however, it’s tackled head-on, stories of loss and separation from both sides of the border. For a few minutes, actors appear genuinely moved and catharses are earned. Then, in a change of tone that feels like a betrayal, we’re back in a Salman Khan film.

From the vantage point of 2010, Ali Abbas Zafar’s film looks back at the life of Bharat and the country he was named for. We see him as an 8-year-old in Lahore, in 1947, separated at the last moment from his father and younger sister when a riot breaks out just as the train to Delhi he’s on is leaving the station. His father’s parting words – keep the family together – become his life’s goal; to provide for his mother and two younger siblings, he takes up jobs in the circus, on an oil rig in the Gulf and in the merchant navy. The film’s poster promises the “journey of a man and a nation together", but the focus mostly remains on Bharat. India only makes cameo appearances – Jawaharlal Nehru’s death, liberalization.

Bharat takes its structure from the 2014 South Korean film Ode To My Father, but its inspirations are homegrown. Early on, we see young Bharat as a conscientious boot-polisher and car-window-cleaner in Delhi. It’s a scenario crying out for a Bachchan reference, which duly arrives. Bharat, now in his twenties, is a stuntman with the Great Russian Circus. His best friend, Vilayati (Sunil Grover, very watchable), is the emcee whose opening act has him emerging from a giant egg. As “My Name is Anthony Gonsalves" plays, the camera picks out a delighted young man in the audience, whom the voiceover identifies as Amitabh Bachchan.

Zafar might have one foot in the 1970s, but Bharat is a film of this moment. There’s another Bachchan reference, when the African pirates who board an Indian ship turn out to be fans of the actor – so much so that they abandon the robbery. “There isn’t a problem which conversation, love and Hindi film songs can’t solve," the voiceover tells us – a declaration of Bollywood’s soft power, in an era when it’s forced to seek out lucrative foreign markets. There’s also the obligatory nation-love that accompanies most Hindi films today. When his pleas to the oil rig recruiters fall on deaf ears, Bharat starts to sing the national anthem. It’s almost a parody of unthinking patriotism taking the place of genuine argument, but the film is straight-faced about it, playing the whole song through. “Yeh asli deshbhakt hai (he’s a real patriot)," someone remarks after he’s done.

We see Bharat in his 20s, 40s and 70s, but Khan doesn’t age onscreen so much as trade one kind of facial hair for another. Surreal as it is to see him play a 70-year-old, he’s scarcely more believable as a 53-year-old action star. No amount of VFX cleanup or clever choreography can overcome the simple fact that the actor is trapped in an image he can’t deliver on anymore. The scene in which the pipeline they’re digging caves in shows how difficult it’s become to structure a physically demanding scene around Khan. Bharat, injured and trapped behind a wall of rubble, almost passes out, then snaps back to life. Next thing you know, he’s dragging his crew out. We don’t see the intervening scenes because the man on screen can no longer execute them convincingly—or can’t be bothered to.

The visible effort Katrina Kaif puts into playing Kumud, oil rig recruiter turned newsreader, only calls attention to Khan’s distaste for the same. Yet, Zafar has a way of drawing the actor into revealing moments. When Bharat breaks down towards the end, Khan seems, just for a moment, vulnerable and human. Then the movie star ego kicks in and we see a septuagenarian beat up four attackers on bikes. The flesh is weak, the spirit only half-willing.

This review appeared in Mint. 

Patrick Eagar: Shot for shot

Patrick Eagar might be the only photographer to inspire a bowling action. On 6 July 1974, during the third Test between India and England at Edgbaston, he took a series of images of spinner Bishan Singh Bedi. One sequence starts during Bedi’s run-up and continues after the ball has left his hand. These photographs were seen by a 16-year-old Monty Panesar—like Bedi, a Sikh boy, but raised in England. The elegance of Bedi’s action spurred a young Panesar to create a similarly smooth one.

Eagar, 75, grew up in Hampshire, England. He photographed his first Test in 1965. By the time he called it a day in 2011, he had racked up 325 Tests and over half a million photographs. He is perhaps the best-known cricket photographer ever. In an email interview, Eagar talks to Lounge about the importance of anticipation in sports photography, and why effortless players are difficult to shoot.

Did you start out wanting to become a cricket photographer?
I was always interested in photography. My father was captain and secretary of Hampshire (from 1946-57) and whenever Hampshire played at Lord’s, he would be sent a set of photographs by Sport & General, the agency that exclusively worked at Lord’s. I was fascinated by them since they were taken with long telephoto lenses and I didn’t have one. Actually, you couldn’t really buy one, the way you can today. By 1972, the situation had improved, although I ordered one from Nikon in April 1972 and it was delivered in September, far too late for my first Test season. The old cameras used lenses rescued from aerial reconnaissance cameras from the two world wars. They say the German lenses were the best.

Did you play yourself?
I was a devilish leg spinner with the smaller-sized cricket ball that we used up to the age of 13. I took 55 wickets against other schools in one season. Then, a year later, my fingers no longer fitted around the larger (5.5 ounces) ball and the batsmen got bigger. I was far too easily slogged to the boundary.

Who were the photographers who inspired you?
The classics—Henri Cartier-Bresson, Elliott Erwitt, Robert Capa, Edward Weston...

What was your first great photograph?
The 1972 English season was the first in which photographers other than the exclusive agencies Sport & General and Central Press were allowed to photograph Test matches. The demand for colour photographs was very small, so all the other photographers only shot in black and white. If the light was bright enough, I was able to use colour film, and, being the stubborn sort, I really thought this was something I could exploit for the future.

My first Test of that summer was Old Trafford and the sun hardly ever came out, which made colour photography very difficult. I did manage one colour photograph of a Dennis Lillee wicket (Alan Knott caught by Rod Marsh) which made a pleasing composition. A good photograph, though perhaps not a great one!

In 1972, we were told where we could sit, particularly at Lord’s. One day I found myself in the most unsuitable spot, high up in the Warner Stand. Greg Chappell made a century and returned to a standing ovation. I then found I was in the perfect position to photograph the Lord’s pavilion from top to bottom as he came off the field of play.

Did you have match-day rituals?Not really. In the early days, I think the amount of equipment and the lenses were heavier and trolley bags hadn’t yet been invented, so car parking at the ground was a great help. On a hot day, a supply of water was helpful. You couldn’t just wander off and buy one. If you ever failed to watch even a single ball, then that might have been the image of the day gone forever.

How much does anticipation play a role in capturing the decisive moment?
With cricket, the problem is always the same in that most of the players you are interested in are 75 yards/metres away, unlike football, rugby or golf. The only thing that varies is your angle to the action, ground level or up in the stand, behind the bowler’s arm or at square leg or anywhere for that matter. Correctly anticipating the action in any single session would result in setting up all the equipment in the best place from which to work. A fast bowler with a new ball would indicate having all the slips in view. An in-form batsman with a good square cut or cover drive would send you square of the wicket at ground level.

The permutations are endless. You can shorten the odds in your favour by using a second or third remote-controlled camera; or an army of assistant photographers. Remote-control cameras have helped me a lot over the years, the second angle on any incident often being a life saver.

What kinds of players are tough to shoot? What kinds are easier?
Obviously, any player with a classic action, batting or bowling, fits into a mould. You hardly have to think about how you are going to photograph them to show them at their best or at their most typical.

Some players time the ball so well there is no visual sign of strain or effort. Michael Holding was known as “whispering death" because his approach to the wicket was so quiet and apparently effortless, his action so apparently economical that it was amazing that he regularly topped 95 mph or more. David Gower’s cover drive was a thing of perfection, no bish-bash, just an even, perfectly timed stroke. The problem with people like that, and I would include Sachin (Tendulkar) in particular, is that the photograph doesn’t always convey the power in the shot, it doesn’t look like a boundary particularly if the ball has been hit along the ground, as it so often was with the best players.

Which are your favourites among your own photographs?I think anything that conveys a moment in a game—the more important the moment, the better the photograph. A slip fielder diving for a catch, a wicketkeeper stumping, a fielder hitting the stumps for a run-out, that sort of thing. A batsman and the winning runs. Maybe the moment that turned a match.

There’s a great story about your sequence of Bedi photos inspiring Monty Panesar.
The Bedi photographs were taken on a 16mm cine camera at a speed of 64 photos per second. I couldn’t afford the special camera that would do it on 35mm film, neither could I afford the running expenses. The photographs made a nice sequence and the quality wasn’t at all bad considering the tiny size of the negative.

Were there any moments you missed that haunt you?
You could always run out of film in the old days, each roll lasting for only 36 pictures. The trick was to reload before you got to the end, but then you wasted some film, which was an expensive matter. Also, it was possible to mis-load a film so that it never wound on at all. The best thing is to forget about the things that went wrong and look forward to the photographs you are about to take, a feeling not unlike that experienced by a bowler who bowls a full toss or a long hop. You could always hope that the next ball might be the unplayable delivery.

If you were shooting this World Cup, which players would you be concentrating on?
Obviously, you keep an eye out for the top performers on the field, but wanting to capture anyone on a given day is more difficult. You don’t really know until it happens. You have to be open-minded and take each innings as it comes. The most unexpected things happen.

I would, however, look out for the most famous players too because they are the most likely to do well. Virat Kohli is an obvious example. But what about the players in the Afghanistan team? I remember the match when Zimbabwe beat Australia in the 1983 World Cup. And after that, they could so easily have beaten India at Tunbridge Wells were it not for Kapil Dev’s innings.

This was part of Mint Lounge's World Cup special. 

Rocketman: Review

Rocketman opens with Elton John crashing a meeting for recovering addicts. Dressed in a orange jumpsuit, heart-shaped glasses, devil-horn headgear and giant wings, he announces that he’s been addicted to alcohol, drugs, sex and shopping. Before you’re done shaking your head at the triteness of the device, though, the film opens up. Elton (played by Taron Egerton) sees his younger self in a corner. He starts singing. The boy sings too. And the scene changes, just like that, to 1950s England, with everyone on the street dancing to “The Bitch Is Back".

Dexter Fletcher’s film really only has this one trick – but it uses it well enough to get by. Time and again, a scene slipping into sentiment or lethargy is saved by near-seamless transition into a musical number. “Rocket Man" starts off in a swimming pool, moves through a hospital (albeit one interpreted, Fosse-style, through dance) and ends up in a concert. “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting" does a neat time jump. “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" gives the weary opening lines not to Elton but to his long-time writing partner, Bernie Taupin.

The rest is not too different from that other British rockstar film, the one Fletcher helped finish after director Bryan Singer was fired. Difficult childhood, precocious talent, substance abuse, isolating fame – the beats are familiar, as is the puzzling assumption that the viewer should feel sorry for Dionysian rock stars if they spend most of the film feeling sorry for themselves. Still, there are significant gains over Bohemian Rhapsody. Fletcher and screenwriter Lee Hall are more successful in making the supporting characters register, aided by tart performances by Bryce Dallas Howard (as Elton’s mother) and Richard Madden (as his manager and lover), and a soulful Jamie Bell as Taupin. Elton's sexuality is treated, by big studio film standards at least, with some forthrightness. And Egerton is a more intriguing, mercurial Elton than Rami Malek’s dead-eyed imitation of Mercury.

The musical numbers are energetic, but it’s difficult not to wish that someone like Edgar Wright, or whoever does the dance setpieces for TV’s Legion., had been unleashed on this material. There’s been a surprising resurgence of the Hollywood musical, but apart from Damien Chazelle’s La La Land, recent films have been high on technique and low on imagination (the situation isn’t much different in Hindi cinema). If there are going to be modern musicals, there should also be reconsiderations of the form. When young Elton and his father, mother and grandmother sing, in turn, successive lines from “I Want Love", it’s an old trick used for no discernible reason, and the emotion is lost.

At the end of the film, there’s a scene where the younger Elton embraces the older, ravaged one – a idea that plays out as mawkishly as it ought to. I was reminded of Get On Up, a 2014 film about the American soul singer James Brown, which also crosscuts between younger and older versions of Brown, but with less self-pity. I felt I understood something fundamental about Brown after watching that film, whereas Rocketman is an enjoyable snapshot of Elton John the showman and a shallow ode to poor, loveless Reggie Dwight.

This review appeared in Mint.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

MUBI’s parade of roses

It starts with two intertwined figures, their outlines razor-thin black, the rest of the screen blinding white. Though we’re only shown close-ups, we can tell it’s a man and a woman. Or can we? After the ghostly love scene is done, we hear the woman speak, just offscreen, and the voice is our first clue that what we have seen might not be the heterosexual coupling cinema has conditioned us to expect. She comes into view, asks the man to zip her dress up. “How do I look?" she asks. “Beautiful, Eddy."

Eddy, a trans woman, is the sensual, unstable centre of Funeral Parade Of Roses. Toshio Matsumoto’s film, released in 1969, has since become a cult favourite, both for its depiction of underground queer culture in 1960s Japan and its avant-garde madness. The film revolves around the rivalry of Eddy (played by the androgynous Japanese TV and film star Peter) and the older Leda (Osamu Ogasawara), hostesses at a gay nightclub. “You look exactly like a girl," an interviewer tells the kimono-wearing Leda. “How long have you been a queen?"

Other interviews are conducted on the streets, as if for a documentary. One shy individual responds to a question about how long he’s been a gei bōi—local slang for effeminate homosexual men, which the subtitle translates as queen—with “since last December". Asked if he likes men, he answers, “I like gays, that’s all." He ends by saying he was “born this way".

Funeral Parade Of Roses is only incidentally interested in empowerment, though. Matsumoto’s real aim is anarchy, achieved partly through the film’s subversive content (an orgiastic party; drag queens using the men’s loo) but more through its radical form. The action is interrupted by intertitles, speech bubbles, freeze frames. Eddy crashes into a food vendor on a bicycle and we are assaulted with rapid-fire images of spilt noodles, a woman bleeding on the floor, a creature crawling out of a man’s face. Around the 39-minute mark, there’s an epic “freak-out", a phantasmagoric series of images that goes on for minutes.

The film may have been ahead of its time, but Matsumoto was also tapping into the zeitgeist. In 1968, Stanley Kubrick ended 2001: A Space Odyssey with a freak-out of his own (there’s a long-standing rumour that Kubrick liked Funeral Parade and borrowed from it for A Clockwork Orange). Japanese cinema, too, was churning out deliriously inventive works in those years: Seijun Suzuki’s mind-bending Branded To Kill (1967), Masahiro Shinoda’s Double Suicide (1969), Shūji Terayama’s Throw Away Your Books, Rally In The Streets (1971). The psychedelic movement was cresting in San Francisco. Underground directors like Jack Smith and Andy Warhol and experimentalists like Stan Brakhage were challenging received ideas of film. “All definitions of cinema have been erased. All doors are now open," a young director announces, attributing the quote to “Menas Jokas"—though he means Jonas Mekas, the avant-garde American film-maker.

A month ago, your options would have been buying Funeral Parade Of Roses on Blu-ray (Eureka’s Masters of Cinema series) or praying for it to make an appearance at a film festival near you. This changed at midnight on 6 May, as the film was added to MUBI’s India roster. It will remain accessible to the streaming service’s subscribers for 30 days.

MUBI was started in 2007 by entrepreneur Efe Cakarel, after he found himself in a Tokyo café with high-speed internet but nowhere to stream the kind of cinema he wanted (on that day, Wong Kar-wai’s In The Mood For Love). He came up with the idea of an “online cinematheque", a changing roster of hand-picked films that would remain accessible for a limited period. It was initially called The Auteurs but wisely went in for a name change. Today, it has some eight million subscribers.

MUBI is entirely unlike other popular streaming services. Though you subscribe to it the way you would to Netflix or Amazon, there are only 30 titles at any given time. Each day, one film is added, and another leaves the roster. In an age when streaming services are vying to give the consumer as wide a selection as possible, MUBI has resolutely stuck to its curatorial approach. It offers a mix of auteurist and independent cinema, classic Hollywood, experimental and left-of-field choices. “We show titles from studios as well as smaller distributors, sales agents and independent producers, as long as they meet our standard of quality," Cakarel says on email. “Also, we like to show ‘hidden gems’—high-quality films which get overlooked or failed at the box office, but nonetheless are worth watching."

Last year, MUBI announced that it was partnering with Times Bridge, the global investment unit of The Times Group, on an India-specific launch. Cakarel says they are still in the planning stage. “It’s possible we will launch multiple channels to target specific audience segments in India," he writes. “For example, we may launch both a ‘MUBI India’ channel, featuring only Indian content, and a ‘MUBI World’ channel offering primarily English-language Hollywood content, along with some international titles."

You can scroll through the 30 titles on offer on MUBI without having to sign up. At the time of writing this, subscribers in India could watch William A. Wellman’s 1937 comedy Nothing Sacred, three films each by Agnès Varda and Jean-Luc Godard, John Carpenter’s pulp classic They Live and the S&M exploitation film Olga’s House Of Shame. This might sound impossibly eclectic, but if you have been on MUBI for a while, you will know that this is a representative sample.

At ₹500 per month, MUBI is more expensive than Amazon and Hotstar, though less than Netflix. It obviously isn’t a service for everyone: If at least a third of the titles on the roster at any given time don’t interest you, it might not be worth the money. The cost, however, may not intimidate the average viewer as much as the idea of limited choice and placing one’s faith in expert curators, as one does at film festivals.

Yet, consider this: How many films do you actually stream in a month? How many of these are compromises, reruns, comfort food? If you are a serious film enthusiast in India, you already have to contend with a depressing lack of festivals and repertory houses and physical media. Why deny yourself the one good streaming option?

This piece appeared in Mint Lounge.